Intel ‘Informants’ and ‘Suspicious Contacts’ Echo Dark Pasts

Intel ‘Informants’ and ‘Suspicious Contacts’ Echo Dark Pasts

Intel ‘Informants’ and ‘Suspicious Contacts’ Echo Dark Pasts

McCarthyism and firsthand recollections of Soviet surveillance practices.


Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments of these conversations, now in their fifth year, at

Cohen has several reactions to the recent revelation that a longtime CIA-FBI “informant,” professor emeritus Stefan Halper, had been dispatched to “interact” with several members of Donald Trump’s campaign organization in 2016. He discusses each of them:

1. In February, Cohen asked if “Russiagate” was largely “Intelgate,” pointing to the roles then known to have been played by CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. The revelation about Halper, essentially an Intel undercover operative, is further evidence that US intelligence agencies were deeply involved in the origins and promotion of Russiagate allegations of “collusion” between Trump and the Kremlin. (We do not know if others were deployed covertly to “investigate” the Trump campaign, what the two agencies did with Halper’s information, or whether he was connected in any way to UK intelligence officer Christopher Steele and his “dossier.”)

2. But the issue is not President Trump, support him or not. It is instead twofold: our own civil liberties; and, in regard to the Russiagate allegations made against him as a candidate and now as president, or against others under investigation, the organizations and media that no longer profess nor defend these liberties as basic principles of American democracy. (This may be another by-product of what someone has called a “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”)

— The ACLU, for example, seems not to have loudly protested Intel or related transgressions in this regard, if at all.

— Still worse, in two articles and an editorialThe New York Times unconditionally defended Halper’s clandestine mission. It did so by stating the underlying Russiagate narrative as “facts” that “aren’t disputed”: “There was a sophisticated, multiyear conspiracy by Russian government officials and agents, working under direct orders from President Vladimir Putin, to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in support of Donald Trump.” In fact, aspects of this narrative have been strongly questioned by a number of qualified critics, including Cohen, though their questioning of it is never printed in the Times. Even if there was such a “multiyear conspiracy,” for example, how does the Times know it was carried out under Putin’s “direct orders”? In reality, that entire assumption is based solely on two seriously challenged sources: an “Intelligence Community Assessment” of January 2017 and Steele’s dossier. But they are enough for the Times to assert that Halper’s targets had “suspicious contacts linked to Russia”—that these Trump associates had “met with Russians or people linked to Russia.” Indeed, Times columnist Paul Krugman, once a distinguished Princeton professor and Nobel Prize winner, tweeted as Joseph McCarthy might have, calling it “treason.” (These allegations are so vague and capacious they could apply to encounters with many New York City taxi drivers. Certainly, they apply to Cohen himself, who has had scores of “meetings” and “contacts” with Russians over the years, including with “Kremlin-linked” ones.) Indicative of its malpractice in covering Russia and Russiagate, the Times then proceeds to commit factual misrepresentations about three of Halper’s targets. Gen. Michael Flynn did nothing wrong or unusual in talking with the Russian ambassador to Washington in December 2016. Other presidents-elected have established such “back channels” to Moscow, including Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. Carter Page was not “recruited by Russian spies.” Russian agents tried to do so, but he helped the FBI expose and arrest them. And Paul Manafort had not, during the time in question, “lobbied for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.” Instead, he urged that country’s president to accept an EU trading agreement that Putin strongly opposed. The Times ends by asserting that no information collected by Halper (or Steele) had been made public prior to the November 2016 election. In fact, an article alluding to such material was published as early as July 2016 by Franklin Foer and subsequently by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The Times itself ran a number of insinuating “Trump-Putin” stories; accusatory opinion pieces by former Intel chiefs, like the CIA’s Michael Morell and the NSA’s Michael Hayden; and its own editorials prior to the election. Indeed, the allegations were so well-known that in their August debate, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being Putin’s “puppet.”

 — Nor was the Times alone among media outlets that had once deplored civil-liberties violations but justified the Halper operation. The Washington Post also unconditionally did so, as in a column by Eugene Robinson, who denounced critics of those Russiagate practices for “smearing veteran professionals” of the agencies. Had they not dispatched Halper, Robinson added, it “would have been an appalling dereliction of duty.” Proponents of civil liberties might consider his statement “appalling.”

— As usual, MSNBC and CNN were in accord with the Times and the Post. For instance, CNN’s Don Lemon summoned James Clapper himself to vouch for Halper’s undercover mission: “That’s a good thing because the Russians pose a threat to the very basis our political system.” Lemon did not question Clapper’s rationalizing or perspective, nor did he book anyone who might have done so. The new cult of Intel is a mainstream orthodoxy.

3. Not a word about constitutional civil liberties in any of this media coverage, though surely the “informant” and “contacts” themes—the Clinton-sponsored Center for American Progress has recently posted 70-plus purportedly suspicious “contacts” between Trump’s people and Russia—should have reminded some editors, writers, or producers about those practices during the McCarthy era. (For a powerful reminder, read former Nation editor and publisher Victor Navasky’s widely acclaimed Naming Names.)

4. But Cohen recalls instead the times he lived in Soviet Russia periodically from 1976 to 1982 when the authorities banned him from the country (until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985) among open dissidents and semi-closeted Communist Party nonconformists, under Brezhnev’s “vegetarian” surveillance state. Cohen’s Soviet Russian friends called it “vegetarian” because the era of Stalin’s mass arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions had long passed. Suppression by the KGB now featured “softer” tactics, among them clandestine informers and accusations of “contacts with American imperialism and the CIA.” Cohen was quickly instructed by his Moscow friends how to detect informers or, in any case, to be ever mindful they might be present even at intimate gatherings, even “friends.” And, as an American living among targeted individuals, he took every precaution to avoid being that damning “contact.” Nonetheless, in the end, Cohen was cited by the KGB in cases against at least two prominent dissidents, one jailed and the other hounded. (Both later became very prominent human-rights figures under Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin: one as head of the human-rights organization Memorial, the other as the founder of Moscow’s Museum of the History of the Gulag.) 

5. Surveillance was, of course, very different and far more consequential in the generally repressive pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union than in America today. But a number of episodes on both sides involved professors who were intelligence operatives. In the Russigate saga, there is already Halper and the still-shadowy Professor Joseph Mifsud, who befriended the very minor, very inexperienced, and hapless Trump “aide” George Papadopoulos. (Originally said to be a Russian intelligence “asset,” some evidence has appeared that Mifsud actually worked for British intelligence. In any event, he has vanished.) This should not surprise us. Not all American or Russian intelligence officers are assassins, recruiters, or even spies. Some are highly qualified scholars who hold positions in colleges and universities, as has been the case both in Russia and in the United States. As a result, Cohen himself has had over the years personal—yes—“contacts” with several Soviet and post-Soviet “intelligence officers.” Two held the rank of general, both were affiliated with higher-educational institutions (one as a professor), which is where Cohen first met them. Another general headed the former KGB (now FSB) archives. The others, more junior, were working on their doctoral dissertations (a prerequisite for advancement) in the same Stalin-era archive where Cohen was doing research for a book. Cohen took many lunch and smoking breaks with them. Most of the discussions focused on knowledge about the Stalin Terror of the 1930s, though sometimes they did wander to current concerns—including whether Cohen’s native Kentucky bourbon was superior to Russian vodka. No “suspicious” subjects ever came up.

6. The Halper affair should compel each of us to decide whether or not top levels of US intelligence agencies—what Cohen has been referring to as Intelgate—have played an improper, or worse, role in what now may be the worst political crisis in modern American history: Russiagate. Whatever we decide, no one, especially proponents of the anti-Trump “Resistance,” should forget a 20th-century political lesson: The end rarely, if ever, justifies the means.

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