November 23rd, 2017

As an undergraduate at Ohio University during the first Reagan administration I took every course offered by Dr. David Williams. Williams, who taught in the political science department, specialized in what was then The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He had earned his master’s degree in journalism from Moscow University. He was a brilliant teacher.

The one book I remember most from his classes was Hedrick Smith’s The Russians. I still have the book on my shelf.

This morning, reading Luke Harding’s How Trump walked into Putin’s web in The Guardian, reminded me of Smith, Dr. Williams and why I was so fascinated by the Russians more than 35 years ago. Harding opens with the story of a young social and political science student at Girton College at the University of Cambridge: Christopher Steele. Steele, Harding suggests, was recruited for MI6 by one of his tutors. (Looking back now, there is a slight chance that I sadly dodged a similar call from Dr. Williams—there was always a student rumor at OU that the Political Science Department was particularly CIAish.)

Steeled went on to serve his country for 22 years as an intelligence officer and then entered private practice where he would make his living in obscurity until last year when BuzzFeed published the now infamous Company Intelligence Report 2016/080. Under the title US Presidential Election: Republican Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities In Russia And Compromising Relationship With The Kremlin, the 35 page document is best known for one paragraph on the second page where Steele wrote:

One which had borne fruit for them was to exploit personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable ‘kompromat’ [compromising material] on him. According to Source D, where s/he had been present, (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and OBAMA {whom he hated] had stayed on one other official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSE control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.

Another story in this morning’s Guardian suggests that Michael Flynn, retired US Army lieutenant general and disgraced national security advisor for President Donald John Trump, cutting a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In Michael Flynn breaks ties with Trump’s lawyers over Russia investigation, the Associated Press reports that:

A lawyer for former national security adviser Michael Flynn has told President Donald Trump’s legal team that they are no longer communicating with them about the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

The decision could be a sign that Flynn is moving to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation or to negotiate a deal for himself.

That is, of course, double-plus-not-good for the golfer-in-chief.

All of this is a rambling prologue—including an international soccer turn—for Harding’s long read (excerpted from his just-published book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win) which drops the first sabot at:

Before this, in early spring 2016, Simpson approached Steele, his friend and colleague. Steele began to scrutinise Paul Manafort, who would soon become Trump’s new campaign manager. From April, Steele investigated Trump on behalf of the DNC, Fusion’s anonymous client. All Steele knew at first was that the client was a law firm. He had no idea what he would find. He later told David Corn, Washington editor of the magazine Mother Jones: “It started off as a fairly general inquiry.” Trump’s organisation owned luxury hotels around the world. Trump had, as far back as 1987, sought to do real estate deals in Moscow. One obvious question for him, Steele said, was: “Are there business ties to Russia?”

Over time, Steele had built up a network of sources. He was protective of them: who they were he would never say. It could be someone well-known – a foreign government official or diplomat with access to secret material. Or it could be someone obscure – a lowly chambermaid cleaning the penthouse suite and emptying the bins in a five-star hotel.

Normally an intelligence officer would debrief sources directly, but since Steele could no longer visit Russia, this had to be done by others, or in third countries. There were intermediaries, subsources, operators—a sensitive chain. Only one of Steele’s sources on Trump knew of Steele. Steele put out his Trump-Russia query and waited for answers. His sources started reporting back. The information was astonishing; “hair-raising”. As he told friends: “For anyone who reads it, this is a life-changing experience.”

Steele had stumbled upon a well-advanced conspiracy that went beyond anything he had discovered with Litvinenko or Fifa. It was the boldest plot yet. It involved the Kremlin and Trump. Their relationship, Steele’s sources claimed, went back a long way. For at least the past five years, Russian intelligence had been secretly cultivating Trump. This operation had succeeded beyond Moscow’s wildest expectations. Not only had Trump upended political debate in the US – raining chaos wherever he went and winning the nomination – but it was just possible that he might become the next president. This opened all sorts of intriguing options for Putin.

What the Russians had, and Donald Trump very much wanted was intelligence on the likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. In his first report he wrote:

A dossier of compromising material on Hillary CLINTON has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct. The dossier is controlled by Kremlin spokesman, PESKOV, directly on Putin’s orders. However, it has not yet been distributed abroad, including to TRUMP. Russian intentions for its deployment still unclear.

Harding writes:

The memo was sensational. There would be others, 16 in all, sent to Fusion between June and early November 2016. At first, obtaining intelligence from Moscow went well. For around six months – during the first half of the year – Steele was able to make inquiries in Russia with relative ease. It got harder from late July, as Trump’s ties to Russia came under scrutiny. Finally, the lights went out. Amid a Kremlin cover-up, the sources went silent and information channels shut down.

If Steele’s reporting was to be believed, Trump had been colluding with Russia. This arrangement was transactional, with both sides trading favours. The report said Trump had turned down “various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia”, especially in connection with the 2018 World Cup, hosted by Moscow. But he had been happy to accept a flow of Kremlin-sourced intelligence material, apparently delivered to him by his inner circle. That didn’t necessarily mean the candidate was a Russian agent. But it did signify that Russia’s leading spy agency had expended considerable effort in getting close to Trump – and, by extension, to his family, friends, close associates and business partners, not to mention his campaign manager and personal lawyer.

Enter the British version of our National Security Agency: GCHQ. Harding continues:

In late 2015 the British eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, was carrying out standard “collection” against Moscow targets. These were known Kremlin operatives already on the grid. Nothing unusual here – except that the Russians were talking to people associated with Trump. The precise nature of these exchanges has not been made public, but according to sources in the US and the UK, they formed a suspicious pattern. They continued through the first half of 2016. The intelligence was handed to the US as part of a routine sharing of information.

The FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of these contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow. This was in part due to institutional squeamishness—the law prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of US citizens without a warrant.

But the electronic intelligence suggested Steele was right. According to one account, the US agencies looked as if they were asleep. “‘Wake up! There’s something not right here!’—the BND [German intelligence], the Dutch, the French and SIS were all saying this,” one Washington-based source told me.

That summer, GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, flew to the US to personally brief CIA chief John Brennan. The matter was deemed so important that it was handled at “director level”, face-to-face between the two agency chiefs.

And then, nothing. Steele became frustrated. What he had learned, he thought, had to be made public before the election. This was no October surprise, this was Chernobyl. Harding continues:

At this point Steele was still anonymous, a ghost. But the ghost’s message was rapidly circulating on Capitol Hill and inside Washington’s spy agencies, as well as among certain journalists and thinktanks. Democratic senators now apprised of Steele’s work were growing exasperated. The FBI seemed unduly keen to trash Clinton’s reputation while sitting on explosive material concerning Trump.

One of those who was aware of the dossier’s broad allegations was the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, a Democrat. In August Reid, had written to Comey and asked for an inquiry into the “connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign”. In October, Reid wrote to Comey again. This time he framed his inquiry in scathing terms. In a clear reference to Steele, Reid wrote: “In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government … The public has a right to know this information.”

But all this frantic activity came to nought. Just as Nixon was re-elected during the early stages of Watergate, Trump won the presidential election, to general dismay, at a time when the Russia scandal was small but growing. Steele had found prima facie evidence of a conspiracy, but by and large the US public knew nothing about it.

Enter Arizona Senator John McCain:

The same month a group of international experts gathered in Halifax on Canada’s eastern seaboard. Their task: to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Trump’s stunning victory. One of the delegates attending the Halifax International Security Forum was Senator John McCain. Another was Sir Andrew Wood, the UK’s former ambassador to Russia. Wood was a friend of Steele’s and an Orbis associate. Before the election, Steele had gone to Wood and shown him the dossier. He wanted the ambassador’s advice. What should he do, or not do, with it? Of the dossier, Wood told me: “I took it seriously.”

On the margins of the Halifax conference, Wood briefed McCain about Steele’s dossier – its contents, if true, had profound and obvious implications for the incoming Trump administration, for the Republican party, and for US democracy. The implications were alarming enough to lead McCain to dispatch a former senior US official to meet Steele and find out more.

The emissary was David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration. He was sufficiently troubled to get on a flight to London. Steele agreed to meet him at Heathrow airport. The rendezvous involved some old-fashioned spycraft. Kramer didn’t know what Steele looked like. He was told to look for a man with a copy of the Financial Times. After meeting Kramer, Steele drove him to his home in Surrey. They talked through the dossier: how Steele compiled it, what it said. Less than 24 hours later, Kramer returned to Washington. Glenn Simpson then shared a copy of the dossier confidentially with McCain, along with a final Steele memo on the Russian hacking operation, written in December.

McCain believed it was impossible to verify Steele’s claims without a proper investigation. He made a call and arranged a meeting with Comey. Their encounter on 8 December 2016 lasted five minutes. Not much was said. McCain gave Comey the dossier.

All of this feels more than familiar to me. Richard Nixon very nearly destroyed the Republican Party; Trump is set to finish the job, and McCain is prepared to play the role of Tennessee Senator Howard Henry Baker in this circus.

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