Underneath the tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, there are probably reams of classified data pertaining to Russiagate—including sources and methods of the intelligence business—about which we, the public, know very little.
The dueling HPSCI memos from each side of the aisle pertain to just one question in this investigation: Namely, what did the CIA and the FBI know about Carter Page—who served for several months as a foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and who had multiple contacts with high-level Russians—and was it enough to secure a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court warrant to surveil him? What the memo wars reveal is that it’s exceedingly difficult and often controversial, to release even bits and pieces of Top Secret data. That includes intelligence that might relate not just to possible Trump-Russia collusion but also to the broader question of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we might learn about the original question: What did Russia do in 2015–16 to affect the course of the vote?
On the Carter Page issue, the Republicans, led by Representative Devin Nunes, the Trump loyalist who serves as HPSCI’s chairman, claim that their much-touted and now almost universally discredited memo proves that the surveillance of Page was improper (Trump, of course, says the memo vindicates him).
The Democrats, in their still-unreleased rebuttal memo, apparently do not agree. They argue that the surveillance of Page—which began in October 2016 and was subsequently renewed three times, until about July 2017—was based on a voluminous series of briefs presented by the FBI to a FISA court judge, and was not based wholly or even for the most part on the so-called “Steele dossier,” a 35-page compilation of raw intelligence compiled by Christopher Steele, a former MI-6 Russia specialist, on behalf of Fusion GPS, a Democratic-funded opposition research firm in Washington.
Trump, who agreed to release the GOP memo even before he’d read it, announced last week that he would not agree to release the Democrats’ rebuttal memo, prepared by Representative Adam Schiff and other Democratic members of HPSCI, until and unless it was revised. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Schiff was clearly angry. “The hypocrisy of this just kind of reaches out and grabs you by the throat,” he said. “Here the Republicans write a memo which the FBI quite accurately describes as misleading and omitting material facts, the Department of Justice says it would be extraordinarily reckless to release this, and what does the president do? He says ‘I’m going to release it, before I even read it, 100 percent I’m going to release it.’ This is a president who puts his own personal interest above the national security interest of the country.”
In a parallel effort to release some of the classified information tied up in Russiagate, last week The New York Times filed an unprecedented lawsuit on February 5 with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking to unseal the secret documents compiled for the FISA court warrants on Page. Will the Times succeed? “They’re hoping that given the weight of public opinion, and given its importance to the national narrative, that it’s possible,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law. “But it’s a hard thing.” The Times’ case could go to the so-called FISA Court of Review, which has rarely met, and then perhaps to the Supreme Court. “It’s uncharted territory,” Greenberg says. And it’s another indicator of how difficult it is to get intelligence secrets into the public domain.
Carter Page may prove to be an important cog in the machinery of contacts between Russia and Team Trump, or he may be only a bit player. He could even turn out to be largely irrelevant. But the Page saga, whatever its eventual significance, is only one small chapter in the story of Russiagate. According to the original mandate for Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed last May to serve as the special counsel—you can read the whole thing in about one minute—he’s charged with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” along with “any other matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” plus “any other matters” allowed under the law governing special-counsel inquiries. Possible obstruction of justice by the president and/or his aides is of course already a key focus of the investigation. In the report that Mueller eventually delivers to the Justice Department, he may or may not recommend releasing some of the underlying intelligence that originally led the CIA and the FBI to suspect, back in 2015, that Russia had begun a program to interfere in the 2016 election.
Mueller knows a lot more than he’s revealed about Trump’s aides, advisers, and family members, several of whom have already been revealed as eager to obtain damaging information from Russians about the Democrats during the 2016 campaign, and many of whom, contrary to Trump’s repeated denials, had multiple meetings and contacts with a wide range of Russian officials, oligarchs, and wheeler-dealers. (Recall that before last October’s plea bargain between Mueller and George Papadopoulos, who admitted hearing from Russia-connected sources in early 2016 that the Russians had “dirt,” including “thousands of emails,” on Hillary Clinton, no one outside Mueller’s circle of prosecutors suspected that Papadopoulos—who’s been dismissed by Trump allies as a “coffee boy”—would emerge as an important stepping stone in the Russiagate inquiry.)
Mueller has access to hundreds of thousands of documents, thousands of hours of interview transcripts, and plenty of intercepts and phone records from surveillance of Russiagate targets and others. And Mueller’s team has access to the US intelligence community’s storehouse of data that led the CIA, FBI, and NSA to conclude in 2016 that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s e-mail accounts, that the Russian government ordered the selective release of that data through WikiLeaks and other outlets, that President Vladimir Putin was directly involved, and that the Russians intended to undermine Clinton and help elect Trump.
Because the underlying intelligence hasn’t been released, Trump and his allies have been able to deny that any of this ever happened, or to argue that it could just as well have been China or a 400-pound teenage hacker; and to minimize its significance in order to protect the legitimacy of Trump’s upset victory. They’ve launched a coordinated assault on the FBI, the Justice Department, the CIA, judges, the courts, and members of Congress, all to discredit the investigation, which Trump describes as a giant hoax or a conspiracy against him by a mythical Deep State.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump is getting an assist from the Russians, including from Dmitry Konstantinovich Kiselyov, a senior Russian journalist and television commentator who is closely allied with Putin. Appearing last week on Russian state television’s most popular Sunday show, Kiselyov echoed Trump’s own conspiracy-mongering. “Big scandal in the United States!” he exclaimed. “Turns out that by the fall of 2016, a conspiracy formed against then candidate Donald Trump, within the US special services, and the efforts undermining Trump continued even after his victory. Unthinkable! Special services against the president of the country!”
One reason Trump, Kiselyov, and folks like Sean Hannity can dismiss Russiagate as a conspiracy is that very little of the underlying intelligence that went into the US government’s conclusion, as detailed in the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, has been made public. It’s not a simple matter to disclose sensitive, classified information, which is why the battle over the dueling GOP and Democratic HPSCI memoranda is so intense. (Recall, for instance, that it took nearly 15 years before the section of the 9/11 report on Saudi Arabia’s alleged involvement was declassified and released.)
Will the material backing up the Intelligence Community Assessment ever be released? “It’s really hard to predict, because the amount of ifs, in terms of what happens with Mueller, what happens with his investigation, what happens inside the administration generally,” says Fordham’s Greenberg.
The White House will probably resist, with all the power at its command, declassification of any information related to Russiagate. That was the message sent by Trump’s refusal to permit the release of the Democratic HPSCI memo, says Greenberg. “They just want to put a wrench in the works,” she says. “They want to make this as difficult as possible. It might not even have to do with the content itself. It’s just playing politics at every stage, and it could be just showing who’s boss. ‘We’re boss, and you’re not.’”
In the end, according to Greenberg, it will be up to the special counsel. Although Mueller may not have the power to unilaterally declassify secret material, there’s a lot he can do. “This is just one more indication of how much weight there is on the Mueller investigation. He’s gonna have a report, and they’re going to fight about which part of it gets released, but there’s going to be a conclusion based on what is now a lengthy, in depth, ever-growing investigation. And there will be a clamor for the facts. There will be a public outcry, and a congressional outcry, for the facts,” Greenberg says.
Some Republicans who are determined to protect Trump and undermine Mueller insist that not only charges of possible collusion by Trump’s team but also the intelligence community’s findings that Russians interfered in the 2016 campaign rely heavily on the Steele dossier. But there’s no reason to believe that’s the case. In a recent interview, James Clapper, who served as President Obama’s director of national intelligence, said explicitly that the Intelligence Community Assessment itself had nothing whatsoever to do with the dossier. “We briefed, John [Brennan, then CIA director] and I, briefed the president-elect [Trump] at the time, on January 6. He viewed what we presented to him, which had very high confidence levels in what we presented him, which by the way, a point I’ll make, had nothing to do with the dossier. We did not draw on the dossier. The dossier, the infamous dossier, was not a part of our Intelligence Community Assessment,” said Clapper. “His first reaction to it was that this caused a question about the legitimacy of his election.”
What we do know about the Russian meddling, beyond the ICA, comes largely from investigative journalists who have managed to get information about what the CIA, the FBI, congressional investigators, and others learned since mid-2015, when the intelligence community first got an inkling that Russian-linked hackers (nicknamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, also known as Advanced Persistent Threats 28 and 29) had broken into the DNC’s system. So far, based on countless news reports, we’ve learned that the US intelligence community had sources for the ICA that had nothing to do with the Steele dossier and that relied on traditional intelligence sources and methods. For instance, as far back as last June, The Washington Post noted that “a report drawn from deep inside the Russian government” – i.e., via spying—“detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.” Even earlier, in late 2016, The New York Times reported that the United States had actually identified specific individuals from the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency) who oversaw the hacking, possibly through “intercepted conversations, spying efforts, or implants in computer systems that allow the tracking of emails and text messages.”
Now, thanks to other journalists, an important window has opened into one method by which the CIA may have learned about the work of Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, and their relationship to the GRU. In the next installment of this column, we’ll learn how Dutch intelligence helped the CIA track the work of Russia’s hackers in real time.
Meanwhile, this week RT, the Russian television channel formerly known as Russia Today, cited Fancy Bear—which it called “Fancy Bears”—as its source in attempting to discredit allegations that the Russian government and its intelligence service, the FSB, provided performance-enhancing drugs to athletes and otherwise cheated in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (As a result of the investigation into that effort, Russia was formally banned from this year’s Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.) “Hacker Group Fancy Bears has leaked documents obtained from Canadian winter sports federations, revealing that North American officials are among the fiercest agitators against Russia,” reported RT, unconvincingly citing various allegedly hacked documents to prove that the Russian ban was unjustified. The irony of RT, a Russian government–run broadcast unit, citing Fancy Bear—a Russian government–backed hacking operation that allegedly played tampered with the 2016 US election—to support its spurious effort to discredit the Olympics ban was apparently lost on Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief.