Stephen 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. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen first raised the question of “Intelgate,” perhaps coining the word, in the first half of 2017. He returns to it here.
Referring to the memo whose preparation was overseen by Republican Congressman Devin Nunes and whose release was authorized by President Trump, and to similar reports likely to come, Cohen, having for years researched Soviet-era archive materials (once highly classified), understands the difficulties involved in summarizing such secret documents, especially when they have been generated by intelligence agencies. They must be put in the larger political context of the time, which can be fully understood only by using other sources as well, including open ones; and they may be contradicted by other classified materials not yet available.
Nonetheless, the “Republican memo,” as it has become known while we await its Democratic counterpart, indicates that some kind of operation against presidential candidate and then President Trump, an “investigation,” has been under way among top officials of US intelligence agencies for a long time. The memo focuses on questionable methods used by Obama’s FBI and Justice Department to obtain a warrant permitting them to surveil Carter Page, a peripheral and short-tenured Trump foreign-policy adviser, and the role played in this by the anti-Trump “dossier” complied by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer whose career specialization was Russia. But the memo’s implications are even larger.
Steele’s dossier, which alleged that Trump had been compromised by the Kremlin in various ways for several years even preceding his presidential candidacy, was the foundational document of the Russiagate narrative, at least from the time its installments began to be leaked to the American media in the summer of 2016, to the US “Intelligence Community Assessment” of January 2017 (when BuzzFeed also published the dossier), the same month that FBI Director James Comey “briefed” President-elect Trump on the dossier—apparently in an effort to intimidate him—and on to today’s Mueller investigation.
Even though both have been substantially challenged for their lack of verifiable evidence, the dossier and subsequent ICA report remain the underlying sources for proponents of the Russiagate narrative of “Trump-Putin collision.” The memo and dossier are now being subjected to close (if partisan) scrutiny, much of it focused on the Clinton campaign’s having financed Steele’s work through his employer, Fusion GPS. But two crucial and ramifying question are not, Cohen argues, being explored: Exactly when, and by whom, was this Intel operation against Trump started? And exactly where did Steele get the “information” that he was filing in periodic installments and that grew into the dossier? In order to defend itself against the memo’s charge that it used Steele’s unverified dossier to open its investigation into Trump’s associates, the FBI claims it was prompted instead by a May 2016 report of remarks made earlier by another lowly Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, to an Australian ambassador in a London bar. Even leaving aside the ludicrous nature of this episode, the public record shows it is not true. In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in May 2017, John Brennan, formerly Obama’s head of the CIA, strongly suggested that he and his agency were the first, as The Washington Post put it at the time, “in triggering an FBI probe.” Certainly both the Post and The New York Times interpreted his remarks in this way. Equally certain, Brennan played a central role in promoting the Russiagate narrative thereafter, briefing members of Congress privately and giving President Obama himself a top-secret envelope in early August 2016 that almost certainly contained Steele’s dossier. Early on, Brennan presumably would have shared his “suspicions” and initiatives with James Clapper, director of national intelligence. FBI Director Comey, distracted by his mangling of the Clinton private-server affair during the presidential campaign, may have joined them actively somewhat later. But when he did so publicly, in his March 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, it was as J. Edgar Hoover reincarnate—as the nation’s number-one expert on Russia and its profound threat to America (though, when asked, he said he had never heard of Gazprom, the giant Russian-state energy company often said to be a major pillar of President Putin’s power).