Understandably, much has been made of the point that former NSC staffer and Russia expert Fiona Hill, in her 14 October deposition on Capitol Hill, said that the Steele dossier very likely contained disinformation planted through Christopher Steele by the Russians.
Hill confirmed this in her responses to questions posed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. During the hearing, Jordan said: “So I just want to be clear, there was a story done in Politico on you last month. In that reporting it says Steele might have been played by the Russians into spreading disinformation.” (p. 179)
Hill responded by saying, “It’s very likely that the Russians planted disinformation in and among other information that may have been truthful, because that’s exactly, again, the way that they operate. And I think everyone should always be cognizant of that.”
Jordan’s response alluded to the use of the Steele dossier in the FISA application for Carter Page: “Yeah. So information that Christopher Steele was played by the Russians, that information was used, as you well know, by our Justice Department, specifically our FBI, as part of the basis for securing a warrant to spy on an American citizen.”
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Interestingly, Hill felt it necessary to dispute that. A careful witness seeking to convey only what she could certify from her own knowledge might have said something like, “As to that, I can’t speak to the point, since I have no direct knowledge of it.”
Instead, Hill gave a somewhat combative rejoinder.
“I think it’s already come out that that wasn’t exactly the case,” she replied, “that the dossier was basically out there when those investigations had already taken place.”
Jordan interjected that that wasn’t an accurate assertion. But Hill then plowed ahead: “Well, some of the information was that it had come through other ways. But, look, I don’t want to also get into, again, a discussion that could go down a classified avenue because I just want to tell you on, you know, really good authority that the Russians – I mean, again, we should all know this, the Senate has reconfirmed this again – attacked – attacked our democracy.”
She went on: “And also, the point that actually hasn’t come out and, again, why I’ve been very cross in the media, is that the President was attacked as well, because the Russians sought to discredit him.”
A lot of subtext in a few sentences
This passage, in summary, conveys a great deal, indicating for one thing that Hill is in lockstep with the canned theme that Russia was attacking the U.S. election.
Remember: at a curiously lockstep time in 2016 – late July – she had also, out of the blue, published an article at Vox, of all places, making this point by way of discussing Russia’s penchant for such attacks.
The vast majority of Americans didn’t know enough at the time, about the Democratic email incidents that prompted Hill’s and other meditations on Russia’s information ops, to connect them to an “attack on the election.” Relatively few American voters ever saw the contents of those emails. Since that’s the only conceivable way in which pilfering and releasing the emails of political party operatives could be held to constitute an attack on a U.S. election, it was rather an odd connection to draw as immediately as Hill seemed to in 2016.
But in July 2016, she appeared to have the same perspective on the significance of the Democratic email dumps that the mainstream media had just started to flog. That theme had no real purchase outside the left-wing media echo chamber. In her deposition last month, she emphasized the same theme.
Meanwhile, the hearing interlude with Jim Jordan also indicates Hill is a partisan witness with an agenda. That is established by her arguing with Jordan about the use of the dossier in the FISA application. An expert seeking to aid an investigation would stick to her area of expertise, something she could constrain herself to do with discreet responses, even if Adam Schiff, as the committee chairman in charge of the deposition, wasn’t making sure of it.
And although it might seem that Ms. Hill did circle back to her expertise by focusing on Russia, that’s actually misleading. I will outline the effect here, with a bit more illustration from the transcript, and you can decide for yourself what her intentions were.
How Hill frames the proposition
Hill made a point several times of emphasizing the theme that the Russians were attacking the U.S. election and trying to discredit its outcome. Just before the passage above, on p. 178, she said, “[T]he Russians were who attacked us in 2016, and they’re now writing the script for others to do the same. And if we don’t get our act together, they will continue to make fools of us internationally.”
Later, in a more extended passage starting on p. 402, she says something very important in a (resumed) discussion with Jordan of the dossier and Russian attempts against the election (emphasis added):
I believe that the Mueller report and Mr. Mueller and his team did look at some of this information. But, again, they were looking at, you know, information in a more general sense. I would have much preferred to see, from my own perspective, the Mueller report focusing at the outset on what was it that the Russians were doing and then, as the course of that, following the investigatory leads, which, you know, they did in any case, to find out what doors were opened for them into our political system.
Here Hill is saying that Mueller’s focus was on what the entry points were for Russian attempts to attack (undermine, discredit) the 2016 election. Implied in Hill’s testimony is that that would include things like the Steele dossier, if the Russians tried to inject disinformation through it, and presumably the use of social media to inject memes and themes, which featured prominently in the Mueller prosecutions.
It is noteworthy, as an aside, that the Mueller Report didn’t conclude the dossier was a form of Russian interference in the election. It’s Hill lumping it in here with the Russian methods the Mueller Report does discuss, and which Mueller actually prosecuted Russians for.
But hold on to that thought, while we look at one more passage from the same discussion with Jordan. On p. 403, Jordan summarizes a point Hill has made several times: “You were very emphatic about this could happen to anyone [i.e. to other candidates], this propaganda machine that Russia engages in using. And then in the, I think, earlier rounds and based on the story that was written about you last month, you said you believe Steele could have been played by the Russians.”
They go back and forth on this issue for several minutes until Hill concludes with this on pp. 404-405:
[A]gain, that’s what I would like to flag to make sure that we’re all aware that everyone is a target because their goal was to discredit the Presidency. Whoever was elected President, they wanted to weaken them. So, if Secretary Clinton had won, there would have been a cloud over her at this time if she was President Clinton. There’s been a cloud over President Trump since the beginning of his Presidency, and I think that’s exactly what the Russians intended.
Hill seems to establish that she is very concerned about what the Russians are doing, and that she’d like to see more of a focus on that – the nature and details of the Russians’ activities – and less on what Americans or others may have done to function as “open doors” for the Russians’ poison pills to enter “into our political system.”
An interesting perspective, perhaps. It’s one that she previews just before the passage on p. 178, in fact. She refers on p. 177, in an exchange with Steve Castor of the Intel Committee’s Republican staff, to “Rudy Giuliani feeding information” to political media outlets as a distractor: “If we have people running around chasing rabbit holes because Rudy Giuliani or others have been feeding information to The Hill, Politico, we are not going to be prepared as a country to push back on this again. The Russians thrive on misinformation and disinformation.”
And that point is apropos the one she made a few lines before:
Look, and I’m sorry to get testy about, you know, this back and forth, because I’m really worried about these conspiracy theories [i.e., what Trump had Giuliani pursuing with Ukraine], and I’m worried that all of you are going to go down a rabbit hole, you know, looking for things that are not going to be at all helpful to the American people or to our future election in 2020.”
So, to be clear, injecting conspiracy theories – presumably a form of disinformation – into the media is unhelpful in the quest to hold a credible, high-confidence U.S. election. That said, we’re kind of wasting our time on the matter by either debating the “conspiracy theories” or investigating who’s injecting them. What matters is the Russians.
Fiona Hill implies the middle man doesn’t matter
It’s probably obvious where I’m going with this now. Hill’s testimony appears designed to get us to take the middle man for granted – and indeed, to take the brokering method for granted; i.e., how disinformation from a source like Russia is introduced into the public square in the United States.
Christopher Steele was “played.” Ms. Hill says she knows nothing about how the dossier was assembled, and in an exchange with Rep. Lee Zeldin (starting on p. 436) she says she knows nothing about Fusion GPS or its hiring by the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Here she is discreet about it not being her area of expertise, even giving an impression of kind of blowing that aspect of the matter off.
Yet Christopher Steele and a cast of Americans – Democrats – acting of their own volition are how the Russians injected disinformation through the Steele dossier.
Moreover, the only significant effect the dossier had before the election was through its inclusion as justifying intelligence in the FISA application for Carter Page – which Hill also prefers not to focus on.
And that effect wasn’t actually on the election, in terms of its operation or outcome. The effect came later: on the perception of the election fostered afterward by the media and Democratic politicians.
The Fiona Hill testimony seems to want to have it both ways. Or multiple ways, simultaneously.
I.e., the dossier was disinformation, and therefore an attack by the Russians.
But the Russians didn’t inject the disinformation directly through some medium over which they had control. Instead, they concocted it for a former British intelligence official who got associates to ask some Russians some questions. (There’s no indication the Russians were clued in as to who the ultimate client was, or what the purpose was for obtaining the information.) In the process, the British intelligence official probably got played. But that provenance path, we are apparently to understand, doesn’t matter a whole lot.
Yet without the provenance path, the dossier would never have been assembled for the Russians to inject things through. It took Christopher Steele, the DNC, Hillary Clinton, Perkins Coie, Fusion GPS, Sidney Blumenthal, Cody Shearer, and a handful of public officials at each of the Department of Justice, the FBI, the State Department, the DNI, and the CIA to enable the disinformation in the Steele dossier to have any effect at all on the 2016 election.
And that effect, in political terms, was only after the fact. There was no electoral impact from the dossier. The public had no meaningful knowledge of it before Election Day 2016.
If not for the onslaught of media coverage and Democratic political agitation once BuzzFeed published the dossier in January 2017, two months after the election, the disinformation planted through it by the Russians would never have even hit soil in the public consciousness, much less taken root.
We wouldn’t even know about it. The dossier’s Russian disinformation would have gone unconsumed by a contented, confident public.
Yet Fiona Hill, Russia expert, NSC regional director, and former national intelligence officer on the National Intelligence Council, is anxious that we not overemphasize who’s opening doors into our political system for Russian disinformation to go through, because that would be chasing rabbit holes.