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 TheNation.com.)
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 editorial, The 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.”