This will not be a comprehensive analysis, by any means. It’s an ordered analysis, in which I am saving what to me is the most interesting aspect of the interview for last. But other than that, it’s a way-marker for future thinking.
Others have already compiled the basics; e.g., that Christopher Steele, when he spoke in September 2017, said the overall motive for the dossier was combatting Hillary’s email problem; that his and Orbis’s (his company’s) key concern was that Trump was a threat to the U.S./UK special relationship; that Steele went to the media when James Comey reopened Hillary’s email “matter” in the month before the 2016 election; that Fiona Hill – later of Ukraine phone-call hearings fame – had recommended the dossier’s primary sub-source (PSS) to Steele, whom she had known for some years. (The PSS has been identified as Igor Danchenko; more on him in this earlier article. I will refer to him by his FBI designation in this one.)
As much as it may seem like this is increasingly water under the bridge, it’s important to stick with the information about 2016. Without it, we still don’t have the proper perspective on why there continues to be such a vast-scoped attempt to take down Donald Trump.
It is evident from the current plans of Congress and the behavior of the media that that attempt continues even today. It cannot be overemphasized that merely keeping the klieg lights off Hillary Clinton is simply not a strong enough motive for all this unending hostile action against Trump.
The issue we haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet is not so much who’s involved as what the stakes are. If we listen with our ears, we can hear them emerging from the documents that show who did what. And the Steele interview, which took place in London on 18 and 19 September 2017, gives us a very interesting piece of that.
The reference documents, courtesy of Just the News, are the Form FD-302 from the interview (filed on 9 November 2017) and a set of intelligence analyst notes forwarded by email more than a month earlier, on 4 October 2017. Herewith the pings.
As commentators have noted, Steele seems to have made quite a point, in the interview, of his and his partner Chris Burrows’s view that Trump was their “main opponent.” In the intelligence analyst notes forwarded by email (hereafter the “analyst notes”), there’s a distinct sub-section devoted to this point.
The context for the “main opponent” characterization is given as the U.S.-UK “special relationship.” This is not something we should gloss over. The two Chrises in question aren’t just loyal Brits with their hearts thumping over a longstanding alliance (and one that was fraying at the edges well before Trump came on the scene).
They’re both career professionals of the British intelligence service, and they work now in commercial intelligence services, whose practitioners – especially when they grew very senior in their government jobs – maintain their active-duty ties when they move into the consulting world. It was clear from the early digging on him that Steele remained in contact with the aging senior alumni of the British service. When Steele and Burrows say “special relationship,” my ear hears the very special relationship – a unique one – between the intelligence services of the U.S. and the UK.
Now, in that context, think about what it means to say that Trump is the “main opponent” of that relationship.
There’s really no reason why Trump would be seen as such an opponent … unless his posture on his top agenda items in the 2016 campaign was antithetical to something those intelligence services were pursuing in common.
It’s illuminating to recall Trump’s handful of top agenda items in the 2016 election. He wanted to alter the U.S. posture with China, negotiate more advantageous trade agreements across the board, secure the U.S. border, gain energy independence for America, roll back regulation and taxes domestically, get a better agreement with Iran, and get the U.S. out of “foreign wars.”
We’ve had reason, throughout the forensic foray into the intel services and their role in 2016, to credit them with their own agendas. I doubt many readers who’ve been paying attention would dispute that the agendas exist. (Chuck Schumer, who warned against intel’s “six ways from Sunday” of getting at its opponents, clearly thinks they exist.)
A shallow, generic take on the “special relationship” point is a fatuous one, at best. At worst, it doesn’t parse at all: there is simply no way to turn Donald Trump into the “main opponent” of the U.S.-UK special R.
But if the intel services – presumably in conjunction with others in both governments, along with many from the revolving-door consulting world and the “civil society” groups that haunt Davos and Aspen – oppose Trump’s 2016 agenda? Well, then we have a thesis that makes sense.
At times, it’s almost laughable how the Steele interview presents evidence of influence operations going on among intelligence services. I want to believe the FBI interviewer(s) recognized that at the time.
The three examples that jump out at me are these.
One is the passage in the interview about Steele’s primary sub-source (i.e., Danchenko; see page “6 of 26” in the FD-302 report) finding it easy going in the early stages to acquire “election-related” information in Moscow.
“With respect to the election-related reports, STEELE said that it did not take much effort early-on for his primary subsource to collect information because the whole thing was an ‘open secret’ in Moscow. People would start talking in bars, and the primary subsource could easily elicit information.”
Gee whiz. Maybe, just maybe, Russian intelligence saw them coming and took the opportunity to plant information. Something to ponder.
But Steele appeared to be planting information of his own in this September 2017 interview. This is the second example. Starting at the bottom of page 9 of 26, Steele’s account of information gained on former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a fascinating essay in gratuitous communication.
It’s clear from the wording of the 302 and the analyst notes that Steele wasn’t asked about Tillerson. He volunteered it.
That’s not anything he would have practiced in intelligence collection tradecraft, or in whatever experience he had as an intelligence professional being debriefed or interrogated. (Remember, Orbis’s work on Tillerson was for another client, unrelated to the Clinton/DNC-commissioned dossier, and had not been solicited by the FBI. Steele had no reason to bring it up.)
That’s influence ops: planting information nuggets when the opportunity arises (or is made). You plant information for your own purposes. Assuming Christopher Steele, himself, had no motive to plant information about Rex Tillerson, I’m guessing the motive lay with the UK intelligence service.
That last point obviously gives us reason to ponder why Steele agreed to be interviewed by the FBI in September 2017. See page 24 of 26 as well, and the discussion of a Volga German named Bitner who Steele said he’d heard was an FSB agent, involved in something then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo “pulled the plug” on.
This utterly gratuitous information screams “plant” to me. Likewise the reference to Orbis and NSA competing for the same information on the dark web. For a professional dealer in intelligence, Steele is awfully chatty. It would have been absurdly incontinent to spill so much voluntarily in an FBI interview – unless it was intentional.
Note, moreover, that in August of 2017, Steele approached DOJ official Bruce Ohr about finding a way to work with the FBI and the Mueller team. This was because he’d been making the same attempt for some time, and was frustrated at not getting a faster response. John Solomon, reporting for The Hill, had a string of text messages between Steele and Ohr at the time, in which Steele expressed that frustration:
“Whenever convenient, I would like a chat, there’s a lot going on and we are frustrated with how long this re-engagement with the Bureau and Mueller is taking,” Steele texted Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr on Aug. 6, 2017. “Anything you could do to accelerate the process would be much appreciated.”
Steele probably wouldn’t have been so persistent without the sanction (perhaps the prodding?) of British intelligence.
The third example comes from the interview’s more-redacted but still largely intelligible references to Prague, Michael Cohen, and the Rossotrudnichestvo cultural-front entity there, run by the Russian government.
For this topic, the analyst notes are the essential source. A key audio recording Steele said he had relating to the dossier was of a sub-subsource speaking to the PSS about the alleged Cohen meeting in Prague. The passage on page 3 of the analyst notes develops it.
Right away, the chief thing to recall about this is that there has never been any evidence Cohen was in Prague, outside of the dossier’s allegations. The dossier was vague about when Cohen might have been there, which is basically impossible. If anyone had certain knowledge that Cohen was there, the forensic path to that knowledge, by any means, would have a definite time hack on it – not to the minute or hour, necessarily (although most would be just that precise), but certainly to the day.
The audio recording would be just one of the possibilities for that, so it’s interesting that Steele is so coy in the interview about what state the available version of that recording was in by September 2017.
Independently of that, however, it would be foolish to swallow any implication that Steele had a successful PSS who got audio recordings but then couldn’t tell Steele what day they were made on, or when in relation to that day the recorded sub-subsource thought Cohen had been in Prague. That’s not passing-grade work.
There’s a bit more to it though. The sub-subsource is said to believe his source (yet another party) was “scared,” which seemed to be in part because he knew the sub-subsource was meeting with the PSS.
This leads us to the third ping.
I continue to wonder if a person named Yevgeny Nikulin, a Russian who claimed he was questioned by the FBI in November 2016 about Trump and the U.S. election (and offered a sweetheart plea deal if he’d cop to hacking the DNC), was part of this little Czech side drama. I don’t know if we’ll ever find that out; he was wanted on cyber-crime charges, and after months in a prison in the Czech Republic was released to the U.S. in March 2018, although Russia wanted him as well.
But the larger point is that the “Cohen in Prague” allegation appears to have been a planted story. In this case, the interesting part is that it’s not clear where it came from.
Steele was at pains to attribute it to the Russians, through Rossotrudnichestvo in Prague (referred to in the analyst notes as “Rosso”). To my ear, he protested about that just a bit more than necessary.
But if the Russians wanted to plant something about Cohen – or anyone else – in Prague, they’d typically make sure Cohen had actually, provably, measurably been in Prague. If there had ever been proof Cohen was in Prague, that alone would have tended to confirm in people’s minds the other allegations about the supposed event.
That’s a key reason this interlude has never smelled right to me. Another one is what I wrote about in the initial treatment of Nikulin: that in terms of gonzo journalism, no one was more Johnny-on-the-spot than the Soros-sponsored folks at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They had a somewhat preternatural amount of information right out of the gate on Nikulin’s case. Indeed, he had chosen for some reason to send RFE/RL a lengthy hand-written letter about what was going on.
If Nikulin was the Russians’ boy, that’s peculiar. If – as you’ve probably guessed I don’t rule out – Nikulin was the third-party source for the PSS’s sub-subsource, that would explain why he was “scared,” as stated by the sub-subsource in his chat with the PSS.
But it doesn’t explain why the story would get started that Cohen had been in Prague if he hadn’t been. I don’t see a Russian motive to plant that story.
On the other hand, a plant from another group, perhaps working through the journalists at RFE/RL, to attribute a Russian connection to Cohen being in Prague – that works out as a reasonable possibility, fitting with the other facts of the dossier case (i.e., who commissioned it and why).
In any case, it would be one of many instances in which the dossier’s allegations didn’t prove out.
But that doesn’t make it dismissible as a way-point in our analysis. Steele went to some lengths to pump the bellows on the Cohen-Prague thing in his September 2017 interview. He seemed to be dangling the audio recording as bait, in fact.
Yet no account of chats or interviews or other information uncovered has ever made it worthwhile pursuing the “Cohen in Prague” angle further, because there is simply no evidence Cohen was ever there. The plot point that he was seems to have been important to someone, but I don’t think it was the Russians.
The final ping comes from a brief passage on page 25 of 26 in the 302, and is to me the most interesting and informative new nugget. It’s the paragraphs about Orbis working on cases involving Kazakhstan and Cyprus.
Steele seems to have said little about the matter, although he offered a PowerPoint presentation linking the Kazakh angle to Trump Soho and Felix Sater (a recurring figure in the Russiagate/Spygate saga due largely to his involvement in real estate in New York).
But according to the 302, Steele mentioned one name that opens quite the door for us: Ablyazov. For background on Ablyazov, see the Danchenko article (link above) and Part I and Part II of my Uranium Jerky series from 2020.
Orbis, Steele indicated, was working on Ablyazov’s embezzlement case linked to the national bank of Kazakhstan – BTA – which was then wending its way through the courts in the UK. (The 302’s wording is not that specific, but Ablyazov had been under indictment in Kazakhstan for the BTA embezzlement rap since 2009, and there’s been a related case in UK court up through 2020, which most recently resulted in the court freezing $5 billion in assets. Steele’s reference, as recorded, was to the substance of that case: the embezzlement of BTA.)
Ablyazov is Mukhtar Ablyazov, former head of BTA, a former minister in the Kazakh government of then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, and one of two major figures who managed the Kazakh end of Frank Giustra’s investment in Kazakh uranium in the period 2005 to 2007. The other was the head of the Kazakh national nuclear company at the time, Mukhtar Dzhakishev.
The Giustra uranium investment via Ur Asia, eventually evolving to Uranium One, was the transaction apparently lubricated by Bill Clinton with his trip to Kazakhstan at Giustra’s behest in September 2005.
Ablyazov is also the Kazakh oligarch for whom Stephan Roh, the attorney for Joseph Mifsud, is recorded as setting up shell companies in the British Virgin Islands during the 2006-07 period of the negotiations with Giustra.
And Steele’s firm, Orbis, was doing work related to Ablyazov’s Kazakh embezzlement case at some point prior to the Steele interview with the FBI in September 2017.
Recall that the indictment of Ablyazov was filed in Kazakhstan in February 2009, within weeks of Barack Obama taking office in the U.S. Ablyazov fled the country just ahead of the indictment, and spent time in detention in France until his release in 2016. Having established himself from abroad as the head of a political opposition party in Kazakhstan, Ablyazov was given asylum in France in 2020, and is believed to be living there now. (Dzhakishev was also indicted for corruption in the early 2009 sweep, and wasn’t as lucky as Ablyazov. He was jailed in country rather than escaping abroad.)
The year 2009 was also, as we have established (see the Uranium Jerky series), an astonishingly active year for weird events, including still-unexplained developments in the uranium trade.
But that by itself may not be the most interesting thing about the Steele interview. The interview, to be sure, connects the activities of Orbis in the mid-2010s to other prominent features of the Clintons’ careers: Giustra, Kazakh uranium, Uranium One, the Mifsud-Papadopoulos drama in Spygate, and Stephan Roh’s fleet of peculiar companies incorporated in the UK, including a uranium dealership.
But here’s a curious aspect of the reference to Ablyazov. His name, Ablyazov, is explicitly included in the 302 summary. But the name “Ablyazov” is not in the analyst notes.
The sole reference in the analyst notes is in the very last bullet point: “Orbis is involved in some Kazakh-related and Cyprus-related business work, and some of the material obviously falls within the remit of Special Counsel. This brings up the issue of how we’re going to go forward from here, how much support can be expected going forward.”
It’s curious to me that that’s everything in the analyst notes about “Kazakh-related work.” The whole section of the 302 (again, starting on page 25 of 26) is interesting because it gives more details about the “Kazakh-related and Cyprus-related” work than are recorded in the analyst notes. It appears the person who typed up the analyst notes at the very least didn’t seem to key on the details as significant.
Considering that the detailed passages in the 302 are at pains to tie the Kazakh and Cypriot information to Trump, the probe of whom is the subject of the Special Counsel charter, it comes off as odd for the analyst to not key on the details.
Even if the analyst didn’t have the background to recognize a reference to Ablyazov (whose name is annotated “NFI” – no further information – in the 302), he or she would still understand the significance of Steele tying these Orbis business activities to Trump’s network of associations.
This minor discrepancy raises questions for me. Did Steele in fact brief the interviewer on the details? If not, where did they come from? If he did, and the analyst didn’t think it worthwhile to elaborate at all, why not? Who made sure the details were incorporated in the 302?
Part of the interest comes from the fact that the supposed connections to Trump never went anywhere. The Special Counsel probe couldn’t make anything out of them, and it seems the Brits couldn’t either. Otherwise, with Steele trying to inject information from their end, we would have seen something develop from those connections.
But we didn’t. It’s useful to ask who the intended audience was for the reference to Ablyazov (and perhaps to the named entities in Cyprus as well). The information was evidently volunteered by Steele. The Mueller team, the DOJ, and the FBI were the audience that would see the 302.
Maybe Steele was just trying to emphasize that Orbis was working on a couple of angles they would be interested in. In plain words, maybe he was trying to drum up business. Or maybe it was a signal being passed on for British intelligence.
At any rate, given all the other common links running through Ablyazov – Clintons, Giustra, Uranium One, the uranium trade, the Obama administration, the dossier itself, the spy list (Mifsud) and the hangers-on (Roh) of Spygate in 2016 – it’s simply not possible that all these features of the tale are linked, and yet unconnected. The one in the middle, the uranium trade, may turn out yet to be the most important.