The Russiagate news has sharply accelerated over the past two weeks: the indictments of two senior Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates; the guilty plea from George Papadopoulos about his multiple campaign contacts with Russian officials and intermediaries, including those who told him they possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails,” before news of the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee was made public; the rumors that next to be indicted by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russiagate, will be Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and perhaps his son, too; the avalanche of news about Russian bots and trolls’ using Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to exacerbate political divisions in 2016 and to support the election of Donald Trump, including the creation of numerous fake personalities; and, of course, the bob-and-weave testimony of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign policy aide, about his pattern of Russian contacts in 2016, delivered to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).
And there’s a lot more to come, including—according to The Wall Street Journal—the likely criminal indictment of at least six Russian officials for their role in the 2016 cyberattacks. In response, Trump, Page, and Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, are escalating their attacks on the CIA and its intelligence-community partners.
Page’s testimony, all 200-plus pages of it, is popcorn-worthy entertainment, with him denying, obfuscating, and prevaricating under intense questioning from both Republicans and Democrats on the HPSCI. For instance, there’s an exchange between Page and ranking Democrat Adam Schiff over Page’s exasperatingly asserting that he’s claiming his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself from self-incrimination, while at the same time announcing that he’s willing to turn over to the committee certain documents and e-mails, but not others (see pages 26–29 of the transcript). At one point, Schiff asks, “Dr. Page, is it your position that you have a Fifth Amendment right to provide nonincriminating emails or documents to the committee but withhold incriminating documents from the committee and selectively comply with the subpoena?”
What Page is apparently worried about is that, for years, the US intelligence community has been watching him and, no doubt, intercepting his e-mails, phone calls, and other communications, and that recorded transcripts and copies of all of those are in the HPSCI’s (and Mueller’s) files. As early as 2013, Page came to the attention of US authorities because of his contacts with suspected Russian spies, who apparently were seeking to recruit him. In 2016, during the campaign, Page was secretly monitored by US intel over renewed contacts with Russians while he was serving on Trump’s foreign-policy team. In April, The New York Times reported that the FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court–ordered wiretap against Page in 2016 “based on evidence that he was operating as a Russian agent.” Among his contacts then were a range of leading Russian officials, including top executives of Gazprom, for whom Page was both an adviser and investor. In September 2016, Harry Reid, then the Senate minority leader, wrote to then–FBI Director James Comey about Page’s alleged contacts with “high-ranking sanctioned [Russian] individuals,” part of what Reid—who’d been briefed on what the intelligence community was learning—called evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, according to Yahoo News.
No wonder, then, that Page, echoing Donald Trump, is on the warpath against the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, and other elements of the US intelligence community. (Those three agencies concurred, in January 2017, that the Russian government, under the direct supervision of Vladimir Putin, hacked into the DNC system and released its contents to WikiLeaks and other outlets in order to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.) In his rambling, often confusing testimony to the HPSCI, and in letters to the committee that he released, Page bitterly denounced his accusers, including the HPSCI, the FBI, and the media, for “civil rights abuses” and “an ongoing witch hunt,” part of what he called “an intensive domestic political surveillance operation…initiated on behalf of the Clinton/Obama regime.”
Yet Page—who may or may not decide to cooperate with Mueller, and in fact may already be doing so—explicitly stated the reason that he’s willing to provide some documents to the House committee but not others: because, he said, he’s concerned that some of the information he might be forced to turn over will in some way contradict what Mueller and the congressional intelligence committees already know, from having looked at the transcripts and copies of his phone calls, texts, and e-mails. The information that he might provide “cannot be as comprehensive as the information that was already illegally collected against me,” he told the HPSCI, and he said he’s worried that some of it might not “match up.” As he put it, “The National Security Agency, CIA, and FBI have infinitely greater data processing capabilities than I do.”
Page’s, and Trump’s, attacks on the CIA et al. might be intended to provide cover, at least as far as the public is concerned, for Page’s overt and covert contacts with leading Russian officials. In his testimony, Page revealed that he did, in fact, meet with Russia’s deputy prime minister—though, earlier, appearing on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC program, Page said his contacts with Russians were limited to “man in the street”–type interactions. At one point during Page’s testimony, Schiff read to him the text of an e-mail that Page had sent to two Trump campaign officials on July 8, 2016. It read: “I’ll send you guys a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the presidential administration here.” Yet under repeated questioning Page stuck to his story about man-in-the-street contacts and a very brief, “five-second” interaction with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.
By attacking the CIA—which Trump once compared to Nazi Germany, during the campaign—Page may be getting some help from the CIA itself, at least from its Trump-appointed director, Mike Pompeo. In a major exposé broken by The Intercept, reporters Duncan Campbell and James Risen—the latter a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter formerly with The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times—revealed that Pompeo recently met with former high-level NSA official William Binney to discuss Binney’s widely discredited theory that the DNC wasn’t hacked at all and that the WikiLeaks-published e-mails resulted from an internal leak. According to Binney, the meeting with Pompeo came about because Trump himself told Pompeo to meet with him. (Pompeo began the meeting by saying, “The president told me I should talk to you.”) “This is crazy,” a former CIA official told The Intercept. “You’ve got all these intelligence agencies saying the Russians did the hack. To deny that is like coming out with the theory that the Japanese didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor.” CNN, which also reported the Pompeo-Binney meeting, called Binney the purveyor of a “conspiracy theory.”
Unfortunately, that exact “conspiracy theory” was circulated via The Nation this past summer in a widely criticized story by Patrick Lawrence, who cited a memo published by Binney and some of his associates at an outfit called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. In that piece, Lawrence uncritically transmitted the VIPS memo’s claim that the DNC affair was “an inside job” by a DNC official, and not the work of the Russians. (Many Nation contributors, as well as a dissident group within VIPS itself and a fact-checker and outside security expert hired by The Nation, challenged Lawrence’s claims. An editor’s note by Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, attached to the Lawrence article after it was published, concluded: “As part of the editing process, however, we should have made certain that several of the article’s conclusions were presented as possibilities, not as certainties.”)
So far, Pompeo hasn’t officially challenged the CIA’s conclusions about the 2016 hack attack. “The Director stands by, and has always stood by, the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment,” a CIA spokesman told The Intercept. But Pompeo strayed off the straight and narrow at least once. A few weeks ago, he made this statement: “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” In fact, however, the community made no such conclusion, opting in its January 2017 report not to conclude anything at all, one way or the other, about whether Russia’s actions affected the election’s outcome. Noting that making a political calculation along those lines was beyond its scope, the Intelligence Community Assessment concluded, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” So Pompeo’s statement is flat-out wrong—and worrisome.
Meanwhile, a little-noticed but important story in The Wall Street Journal last week reported that the Justice Department is pretty well convinced, to say the least, that the Russians did it. Reports the Journal: “The Justice Department has identified more than six members of the Russian government involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and swiping sensitive information that became public during the 2016 presidential election, according to people familiar with the investigation. Prosecutors and agents have assembled evidence to charge the Russian officials and could bring a case next year, these people said.”
Stay tuned. It now appears that Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos are not the only ones who will face charges in the Russiagate affair.