Russia expert Fiona Hill, who reportedly left the National Security Council on 19 July 2019 (i.e., six days before the Trump phone call to Ukraine on 25 July), testified in a closed-door hearing to Adam Schiff’s House Intelligence Committee this week. Hill had been brought to the NSC in the spring of 2017 as one of the staffing decisions in the transition from Michael Flynn to H.R. McMaster.
One might say that the problem with laying out Hill’s connections to the usual suspects of Spygate is knowing where to start.
But that’s not really a problem. The place to start is with Ms. Hill’s connection with Christopher Steele, which Politico reported on in a 30 September 2019 article on her. Here’s how Politico put it:
According to people familiar with their relationship, the two British Russia hands are not exactly friends. But they have known each other for years, beginning when Hill was working on Russia at the National Intelligence Council and Steele was on MI6’s Russia desk.
“She had a high opinion of Steele, and thought he was very smart,” a foreign policy veteran, and one of Hill’s close friends, told POLITICO. Hill spoke to Steele in 2016 and discussed him with friends in 2017, after BuzzFeed published his memos outlining a potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to win the election.
Hill told McMaster “as soon as she was hired” that she knew Steele and had worked with him in the past, according to a former NSC official. But she confided in some that she wasn’t in a position to judge whether the former spy’s assessments were accurate, and even thought Steele might have been played by the Russians into spreading disinformation.
Politico’s contextualizing aside, one would easily have guessed that Hill spoke to Steele in 2016, if one had been spotted a single additional piece of information.
Early advocate of the ‘Russian interference’ narrative
On 27 July 2016, out of the blue, Fiona Hill published an article in Vox on “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections.”
The timing was, let us say, distinctive. This was four days before the FBI launched “Crossfire Hurricane,” and three days before Bruce and Nellie Ohr’s fateful breakfast meeting with Christopher Steele.
It was also at the time the mainstream media were suddenly beating a drum about “Russian interference in the U.S. election.” There can be little doubt that that spurt of themed coverage, virtually identical across media platforms, was a result of Glenn Simpson’s and Christopher Steele’s effort to shop the “Russian interference” narrative around the mainstream media, a campaign Simpson alluded to (albeit obliquely) in his testimony to Congress in 2017.
The WikiLeaks release of emails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had begun on 22 July. But tying that disclosure to a narrative of “Russian interference in the U.S. election” was a media effort at the time Hill’s article was published, five days later.
In fact, at the time, media claims of a “growing consensus” in the intelligence community that Russia was even behind the WikiLeaks release, let alone was prosecuting a broad-scope campaign to “interfere in the election,” were based solely on anonymous sources. The Wall Street Journal reported on 28 July 2016 that then-DNI James Clapper, speaking on the record, indicated “U.S. intelligence agencies [hadn’t] reached a firm conclusion as to whether Russia or any other country was behind the recent computer breach that stole emails and other records from the Democratic National Committee.”
WSJ quoted Clapper: “We all know there are just a few usual suspects out there. But in terms of the process that we try to stick to, I don’t think we’re ready to make a public call yet.”
Fiona Hill’s Vox article echoed the themes of the “Russian interference” narrative at a time when it had not emerged as a consensus position in the Obama administration. Objectively, her thematic emphasis could not have been merely because of the WikiLeaks release on 22 July, which showed only that someone, possibly Russia, had siphoned off a lot of emails from Democratic Party servers and provided them to WikiLeaks.
It would be a leap of logic to interpret that as “interfering with the U.S. election.” At the most, it could be called “attempting to expose and embarrass the Democratic Party.” Since the contents of the thousands of released emails got virtually no coverage in the mainstream media, the voter audience for such an attempt was small, and the potential to persuade or annoy actual voters much, much smaller. Assessing an email theft as a realistic effort to “meddle in” the U.S. election required a superheroic postulate of cause and effect.
But right out of the gate, we find Fiona Hill, Russia expert, interestingly aligned with the Fusion GPS/Simpson/Steele effort to sell a Russian interference narrative in the summer of 2016.
Usual suspect gallery
Then there are her other connections. Fiona Hill was a speaker, for example, at the Aspen Institute Security Forum in July 2017, an event for which Adam Schiff, now taking her testimony in a closed-door hearing, was also a speaker. This is a pattern with Schiff, given his Aspen participation in July 2018 and meeting with Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS and dossier fame, who was also in attendance.
Hill has attended the conferences of the Russian Valdai Club, like Spygate principal Joseph Mifsud and his Russian contact Ivan Timofeev. She has done this under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, with which she has been affiliated as a senior fellow and program director for many years.
Her work at Brookings, where she has stood alongside authorial collaborator Clifford Gaddy as resident Russia expert since 2009, was under the leadership of long-time Clinton intimate Strobe Talbott, who headed the Institution until 2017.
Talbott, of course, was one of the recipients of the “second Trump dossier,” which mirrored much of the material in the Steele dossier and was compiled jointly by Cody Shearer, the brother of Talbott’s late wife and a Clinton “fixer” in the 1990s, and Hillary Clinton’s email buddy Sidney Blumenthal, who shopped the second dossier at the State Department.
A deeper dive shows a persistent pattern
I found another connection particularly striking, although it goes less to demonstrating direct involvement in anything by Hill herself than to showing how she revolved in the orbit of the Spygate principals. They had reason to know who she is, and both she and they have been involved in a distinctive set of activities over the last 20-plus years. Those activities have to do with Russian business; Southeastern Europe (most famously, Ukraine); cultivating ties with governments and factions in Southeastern Europe; and knowing the network map of the Russian mob, and one oligarch from another. (These threads, as I have pointed out before, describe the beat Glenn Simpson worked at WSJ throughout much of that same period, before founding his own firm in 2009.)
The striking connection is Hill’s stint with the Eurasia Foundation between 1999 and 2005. The Eurasia Foundation is a U.S. government supported NGO (receiving funding from U.S. AID) which was established under congressional auspices in 1992 by retired Congressman Bill Frenzel and cofounder Sarah Carey, an attorney. Its purpose was to foster “civil society,” political, and economic development in the former Soviet republics.
Other than the U.S. government, which has always supplied the lion’s share of the funding, a major sponsor is the Open Society Foundations. The timing of the Eurasia Foundation’s establishment coincided with George Soros’s initiation of similar institutional efforts in the Baltic Republics, and shortly thereafter in other nations of Eastern Europe.
Hill’s Brookings Institution biography gives her dates as a program director with the Eurasia Foundation as 1999-2000. However, her downloadable c.v. (link at left on the bio page) also indicates she served as an “Advisor to the President” of the Eurasia Foundation from October 2000 to December 2005. The foundation’s president throughout that period was Charles William Maynes, previously the editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a State Department appointee under Jimmy Carter.
During that period, Hill was also a member of the Central Eurasia Project Advisory Board of the Open Society Institute, with the dates given as 2000-2006.
At the same time, according to the c.v., Hill was a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution (2000-2006). During this period she co-authored two books on Russia, focused on Putin, and patterns in economic and government corruption, with long-time Brookings collaborator Clifford Gaddy. Hill became a senior fellow and program director at the Brookings Institution in 2009, and since 2011 has been on the Board of Trustees for the Eurasia Foundation.
Hill had come to the Eurasia Foundation in 1999 from filling the following roles at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard:
Associate Director, Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (1994-1999)
Director, Annual U.S.-Russian Investment Symposium on Financial and Direct Investment Opportunities in Russia, Harvard University (1996-1999)
Those who’ve been following the Spygate drama, as well as the Obama administration’s interactions with the polities of Southeastern Europe (including Romania, Macedonia, Albania, and others), recognize the threads of a pattern here. They include (a) links between the East European haunts of USAID- and Soros-sponsored civil-society efforts and key sources of “information” against Trump; and (b) familiarity with Russian business and investment issues, especially in Southeastern Europe.
In themselves, these details form only a general impression, if a distinct one. However, there is an arrestingly specific impression left by something that involved Eurasia Foundation cofounder (and then-chair of the Board of Directors) Sarah Carey during the timeframe when Fiona Hill was “Advisor to the President,” Ambassador Maynes.
The story before Spygate
The episode in question is best summarized in this April 2004 update at Johnson’s Russia List (which alert readers will remember as a favorite resource of Nellie Ohr). The update is about a submission provided by Ms. Carey in lawsuits involving Russian oligarchs and their companies, which were pending in U.S. courts.
About the merits of her argument, as opposed to the counterargument mounted by the author (Bruce Marks, an opposing lawyer), we can form no judgment. What’s of more interest is the Russian companies Carey’s brief defended: Yukos, of which Carey herself was a board member; oil company TNK, which Bruce Marks believed Carey’s law firm was representing, and which had recently been formed (2003) from several companies including part-Soros-owned Sidanco; and RusAl, Oleg Deripaska’s aluminum conglomerate, which Marks also understood Carey’s firm to be representing.
At the same time Carey was chair of the Eurasia Foundation board, she was a partner in Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, which in 2014 became Squire Patton Boggs after a merger. That she was also a board member of Russian oil firm Yukos is documented; there is less of an audit trail on whether Squire Sanders represented the companies on whose behalf she submitted the brief. (RusAl and Deripaska were known to be represented by Alston & Bird at the time, but Squire Sanders could have had a role as co-counsel.)
Carey did submit the brief, however, indicating an interest by her firm in putting such defensive material regarding those particular Russian defendants on record with the court. Given her connection with the Eurasia Foundation, it’s not a stretch to imagine that research for her brief was undertaken at least in part by the foundation’s analysts.
Remember, this foundation is a project of USAID and also receives Soros funding. And its board chair was submitting briefs on behalf of Russian oligarch defendants in U.S. courts. The point here is not that there was something untoward going on. The point is that it’s extremely unlikely these intersecting facts were unknown to people like Fiona Hill, or that the parties to the relevant transactions never had any contact with Hill, who had recently been a program director for the foundation and was still an adviser to its president.
Carey and her law firm, in any case, thus had the same interests as those demonstrated during that period by the consulting firm APCO, which alert readers will remember as the pro-bono consultant to the Clinton Global Initiative and lobbyists for the Uranium One-linked companies Rosatom and Tenex. APCO was also (at a later date, 2008-2013) an employer of Spygate principal Jonathan Winer, Christopher Steele’s conduit into the State Department for dossier material in 2016. That’s not just a stray fact; stay with me here.
Eurasia Foundation Chair Carey came down on the same side of the Yukos issue as APCO. APCO was consulting for Yukos in the period in question. And Jonathan Winer himself, then employed at the law firm Alston & Bird (also Deripaska’s counsel), was involved in preparing an attack by APCO on Russia’s prosecution of Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky (see sidebar in blue at the link).
Moreover, in the months leading up to the APCO campaign undertaken on Khodorkovsky’s behalf, Russian entities had placed in peril both Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia Foundation, created in 2001 on the George Soros model (and with “close links to the Soros Foundation’s work,” according to a Los Angeles Times article), and Soros’s own Open Society offices in Moscow. Khodorkovsky’s foundation was subjected to multiple tax investigations, and its bank accounts eventually frozen in 2005; the Soros offices were raided in 2003, purportedly by the landlord over a rent dispute.
That’s what was going on when APCO mounted a lobbying effort for Khodorkovsky and Yukos, and Sarah Carey of Squire Sanders and the Soros-funded Eurasia Foundation was submitting court briefs in defense of Yukos, as well as Deripaska’s RusAl and TNK.
The point here is not to make a good guys and bad guys list out of old history. Nor is it to suggest any involvement in these events by Fiona Hill.
The point is to establish that the usual suspects in Spygate have known for a long time who Fiona Hill is, because she and they have run in the same circles for the last 25 years.
When she goes to testify for Adam Schiff’s committee, Hill isn’t just a random public-spirited field expert who happened to work at the NSC for a while. She’s a known quantity with years-long links to the key interests and figures in the Spygate drama.
It might have been possible, in March 2017, to send a Russia expert to the McMaster NSC who had not published a theme-aligned “Russian interference” article on the laughably perfect date of 27 July 2016. But the Russia expert chosen to back up McMaster in the widely-touted “adult supervision” mission at the NSC was the one who had.