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How the Trump Dossier and the Syrian Crisis caused Russiagate

On 11th January 2017, shortly after publication of the now notorious Trump Dossier, I speculated that this obviously fictitious document might have been the cause of the whole Russiagate scandal.

After carefully explaining why the document is certainly a fiction I made the following point

The big question is not whether the facts in this dossier are true or not; it is the extent to which the paranoid claims made in the dossier have shaped and might even have been the origin for the whole Russian hacking scandal.

I say this because media reports confirm that the dossier or extracts from it have circulated amongst US politicians (including Hillary Clinton and John McCain), US intelligence agencies, and within the media for weeks if not months. The earliest reports in the dossier are dated to July, which suggests that some of its claims – which include circumstantial details of who supposedly within the Russian government was behind the Clinton leaks – were already circulating early in the summer. That is a very early point in the Russian hacking story, making it at least possible that the dossier at least influenced the thinking of some of the people in the US intelligence community and in the media who have been pushing the Russian hacking scandal most aggressively.

Many have remarked on the absence of evidence in the ONDI report which was published last Friday. Even Masha Gessen – one of President Putin’s most relentless critics – has pointed this out.

Publication of this dossier looks like an attempt to provide “evidence” which the ODNI report failed to do. If so then that at least gives rise to the possibility that the dossier is the “evidence” – or more correctly a part of the evidence – that formed the background to the ONDI report but which the ODNI report omitted.

Whatever the truth of this, the fact that an obviously concocted dossier like this has circulated for weeks if not months with its source apparently still considered “unimpeachable” and “reliable” by the West’s intelligence agencies shows how wildly paranoid and ignorant about Russia the West’s intelligence agencies and its politicians and journalists have become.

Fantasy has replaced truth, and it seems that a clever fabricator out to make money has successfully cashed in on it, quite possibly doing serious harm along the way.

My speculation that the Trump Dossier is the original cause of the whole Russiagate scandal has now received dramatic confirmation from a massive article in the Washington Post about the Russiagate scandal, which though it never specifically refers to the Trump Dossier, makes it quite clear that the Russiagate scandal is based on it.

According to the Washington Post article in August 2016 the CIA received secret but supposedly conclusive intelligence that Russian President Putin was seeking to swing the US Presidential election to Donald Trump.  CIA Director Brennan was supposedly so concerned that he immediately sent a secret memorandum advising President Obama of this.

This is how the Washington Post describes it

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump…..

The CIA breakthrough came at a stage of the presidential campaign when Trump had secured the GOP nomination but was still regarded as a distant long shot. Clinton held comfortable leads in major polls, and Obama expected that he would be transferring power to someone who had served in his Cabinet.

The intelligence on Putin was extraordinary on multiple levels, including as a feat of espionage.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin

(bold italics added)

That this refers to the Trump Dossier is clear from the highlighted words.

The Trump Dossier purports to be a “report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the US Presidential race”, which is exactly what the report mentioned in the article is said to be.

The timing is right, with the early parts of the Trump Dossier dated to June 2016 and Brennan sending out his memorandum to Obama in August 2016.

No other report other than the Trump Dossier fitting the description of the report in the Washington Post article is known to exist, and the Washington Post article says that “Putin is a remarkably elusive target”, which makes it all but certain that no other such report exists.

Moreover the Washington Post article slips out these further very interesting comments about the report mentioned in the article

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

(bold italics added)

The Trump Dossier is not a US confection but was compiled by Christopher Steele, who is British, and who is a former agent of the British intelligence agency MI6.  The fact that the Washington Post story says that “the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country” therefore again clearly points to the Trump Dossier, which originated not in the US but in Britain.

In light of these comments I do not think there is any doubt that it is the early sections of the Trump Dossier that are being referred to, and which were what caused Brennan to send his memorandum to the White House in August.

As the above comments show, outside the CIA the US intelligence community was initially deeply skeptical.  “The NSA was reluctant to view it [the material] with high confidence”. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made his skepticism clear.  In the words of the Washington Post article

In late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

“We don’t know enough . . . to ascribe motivation,” Clapper said. “Was this just to stir up trouble or was this ultimately to try to influence an election?”

The Duran picked up Clapper’s skepticism at the time.  Here is what I wrote about it on 29th July 2017

Clapper did not say Russia was behind the leak.  Though he did not clear Russia, he says US intelligence has not yet established the identity of the hacker.   He says that there was nothing especially difficult or complex about the hack, meaning that any of many parties could have done it.  He has pointed out that both the US and Russia routinely hack each other, and that they have been engaged in this sort of thing ever since the start of the Cold War, and that only “the tools have changed”.  He says he is “taken aback” by all the “hyperventilation” that has surrounded the story.

The Washington Post makes clear that leading Republicans in Congress and officials in the 50 US states were also skeptical, remaining so until late into the autumn, up to and beyond election day

On Aug. 15, Johnson arranged a conference call with dozens of state officials, hoping to enlist their support. He ran into a wall of resistance.

The reaction “ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said in congressional testimony Wednesday.

Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, used the call to denounce Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights. “I think it was a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” Kemp said in a recent interview, adding that he remains unconvinced that Russia waged a campaign to disrupt the 2016 race. “I don’t necessarily believe that,” he said.

Stung by the reaction, the White House turned to Congress for help, hoping that a bipartisan appeal to states would be more effective.

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims.

By late September, under pressure from Brennan and the CIA, and also from the hardliners within the Obama administration – first and foremost Secretary of State Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice – Clapper and the US intelligence community however fell into line.

Some residual doubts seem to have remained as shown by Comey’s refusal to sign the October 2016 joint intelligence statement as well as by the fact that the January 2017 ODNI report was drawn up by only three of the 17 US intelligence agencies and by the fact that the NSA refused to give “high confidence” to all the claims made in the January 2017 ODNI report.

However since circulation of the January 2017 ODNI report – fact free though it is – ‘group-think’ has taken over, and it is now career destroying heresy for any US politician or US official to express in public doubts that the Russians interfered in the Presidential election.

All this is disturbing enough.  The fact that the US intelligence community and the US political class have given credence to the Trump Dossier – obviously concocted and absurd though it is – shows both their profound paranoia about Russia and their staggering ignorance about it.

However the sequel is much more alarming.

The Washington Post article makes it clear that over the course of the autumn hardliners within the Obama administration sought to use the Russiagate scandal to escalate tensions with Russia to levels not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This is the range of action against Russia that they pressed for

The early options they discussed were ambitious. They looked at sector wide economic sanctions and cyberattacks that would take Russian networks temporarily offline. One official informally suggested — though never formally proposed — moving a U.S. naval carrier group into the Baltic Sea as a symbol of resolve.

(bold italics added)

What the Washington Post article does not say – though it will have been on the minds of all the US officials who discussed these options – is that October, when these proposals were discussed, was already a period of extreme tension between the US and Russia.

In September an agreement between US Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for a ceasefire in Syria was thwarted by a US bombing raid of Syrian military positions defending the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor.  Following the collapse of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement the Syrian military backed by the Russians moved to wipe-out the Jihadi controlled enclave in eastern Aleppo.  Amidst a furious propaganda campaign in the West about Russian ‘war crimes’, reports began to circulate of planned US military action to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.  The Russians retaliated by deploying sophisticated S-300VM Antey 2500 anti aircraft missiles to Syria, and on 6th October 2016 warned that they stood ready to shoot down US aircraft that threatened their forces in Syria.  On 7th October 2016, in response to this Russian warning, the US backed down, with the White House confirming that all plans for military action in Syria had been called off.

In such circumstances to have sent a US naval carrier group to the Baltic Sea or to have launched cyber attacks against Russian infrastructure would have been beyond reckless.

More pertinently, what the Washington Post article also fails to say is that during this same period – late September to October 2016 – the Obama administration was being widely reported in the media to be planning action against Russia.  However the reason for the planned was not Russian meddling in the US election; it was Russian action in Syria.  Here is how I described it all at the time (2nd October 2016)

There is again talk of supplying Jihadi troops, presumably in the area around Aleppo, with shoulder held surface to air missiles (‘MANPADS’) (the Saker has explained why this would not be effective) and of the US pulling out of negotiations with the Russians (it is not obvious why the US thinks that would scare or impress the Russians) but the truth is that with a head on clash with the Russian military in Syria categorically ruled out by the US military, the US has no real cards left to play.

This is the reason for all the overblown rhetoric of Russian “barbarism”, of Russia becoming a “pariah nation”, of the death threats against Russian servicemen and civilians in Syria and elsewhere, of the talk of the US bombing of Syrian military bases in eastern Syria (this clearly refers to Deir Ezzor), and of the hints of imposing further sanctions (“coercive measures”) on Russia (a non-starter), and of expelling Russia from the UN Security Council or diluting its power of veto there (ditto). 

Given that some of the people involved in demanding action against Russia because of its actions in Syria were the same people who were demanding action against Russia in connection with the allegations in the Trump Dossier of Russian meddling in the election, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what was really driving their demands was their anger and feelings of humiliation at the US having been bested by Russia in Syria.

That this was the real issue on the mind of the US officials who were demanding action against Russia is further shown by how the story of what happened at the G20 meeting between Obama and Putin in Hangzhou in September has been re-written.

The story today is that Obama used the meeting to warn Putin against hacking US voting machines, with the implication being that the warning was effective because no such hacking took place.  Here is how the Washington Post describes it

A month later, Obama confronted Putin directly during a meeting of world leaders in Hangzhou, China. Accompanied only by interpreters, Obama told Putin that “we knew what he was doing and [he] better stop or else,” according to a senior aide who subsequently spoke with Obama. Putin responded by demanding proof and accusing the United States of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.

In a subsequent news conference, Obama alluded to the exchange and issued a veiled threat. “We’re moving into a new era here where a number of countries have significant capacities,” he said. “Frankly, we’ve got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

At the time however the meeting between Obama and Putin in Hangzhou was being reported rather differently.  At that time the focus was on a plan Obama brought with him to Hangzhou for a ceasefire in Syria and specifically in Aleppo, which Putin however rejected.

It was only later that the focus of reporting of this meeting switched to the US election, with the fact that Syria was actually the main subject of discussion at this meeting no longer being mentioned.

Obama undoubtedly did raise the question of Russian interference in the US election with Putin during the meeting, and he certainly did threaten Putin both during and after the meeting with cyber warfare because he said as much at the time in public.  However  it is clear that this was a secondary issue.  The main topic of discussion at the meeting was Syria, with the ultimately abortive Kerry-Lavrov agreement following a few days after.

The hardliners failed to get the tough action they wanted against Russia.  The Washington Post speaks at length of their failure and disappointment.  Ultimately however all the proposals that were made turned out be counter-productive, risking more damage to the US than to Russia

Rice again ordered NSC staffers to finalize a “menu” of punitive measures to use against Moscow. The list that took shape was a distillation of ideas that had been circulating for months across three main categories: cyber, economic and diplomatic.

Again, the discussion ran into roadblocks.

Spy agencies wanted to maintain their penetrations of Russian networks, not expose them in a cyber-fusillade.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

Several senior administration officials called for imposing sanctions on Putin personally or releasing financial records or other information that would embarrass him. Some objected that the latter proposal would send the wrong message — the United States would be engaging in the same behavior it was condemning. In any case, it was not clear how long it would take U.S. spy agencies to assemble such a Putin dossier.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options……

The [eventual] election-related sanctions… have had [minimal] impact.

Officials involved in designing them said that the main targets — Russia’s foreign and military intelligence services, the GRU and FSB, and senior officials at those agencies — have few known holdings abroad or vulnerable assets to freeze.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

The one serious move which Obama did authorise was the planting of ‘cyber bombs’ in Russia’s infrastructure, a plan which apparently is still going ahead

The cyber operation is still in its early stages and involves deploying “implants” in Russian networks deemed “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted,” a former U.S. official said.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Putting aside the lack of morality and utter illegality of this measure, the Russians of course know all about it if only because former Vice-President Biden, former US President Obama, and now the Washington Post, have been unable to resist the temptation to brag about it.  Putin even talked about it with Oliver Stone in the fourth episode of the Putin Interviews.

The Russians will certainly take both countermeasures and preventative measures in response, though Putin – showing far more discretion than Biden, Obama and the Washington Post – refused to hint what they might be.  He did however point out to Stone that the structure of the US economy makes it far more vulnerable to cyber attack than the Russian.

The story of Russiagate since the autumn is of the US political class and the US intelligence community, having accepted the fictions of the Trump Dossier as true, desperately working overtime to prove them true.  That is impossible for the simple reason that they are not true.  Future historians will be incredulous at the credence given to this absurd document.

However the chronology of events provides a partial answer to this riddle.  Over and above the fury of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats at losing an election they were sure they would win, there is the further factor of the huge anger within the US political leadership and intelligence community and within the Obama administration at the humiliation (as they saw it) that the US suffered in Syria because of Russia.

That made them determined to strike back at Russia in whatever way they could, which led them to seize on the fantastic allegations of Russian meddling in the Presidential election in the Trump Dossier in order to justify doing so.

In the event, as the Washington Post article admits, they have inflicted minimal hurt on Russia itself.  Instead they have provoked a massive political crisis in the US.

Whilst that has stopped the rapprochement with Russia that President Trump wanted, with the US government essentially paralysed and with the US President at war with his intelligence services, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the greater hurt in the end has been done to the US.

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