Jaafar  Alnasser / Flickr Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallinn Estonia...
Jaafar Alnasser / Flickr

As we watch the Trump Administration approach the event horizon preparing to fall into the legal pit from which there is no escape, the news stories, the rumors, and the propaganda churned out by the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy tends to overwhelm our recollection of the facts so far.  So, I thought a “small” diary to remind Kossacks of Russiagate history would be timely.

One of the major issues that Republicans are trying to distract us from and create an unsupported scandal over is the famous Steele Dossier.  I think it caught their attention because of the salacious information it contained, the fact that BuzzFeed released the transcript of the report to the public, and that they badly needed a scapegoat because firing Jim Comey and attacking his character simply failed to make the investigation into Russian election subversion go away.

So, they attacked a true American patriot who just happens to be British and not American at all — the author of the dossier — and invented the fiction that Hillary Clinton personally directed him to obtain oppo research of the most vile kind in a desperate attempt to malign the one person capable of making America Great Again.  Christopher Steele must be a criminal.  Hence, the wickedness of Clinton became the wickedness of her henchman, and by further extension, the wickedness of the FBI and, naturally it follows, the wickedness of Robert Mueller.  Pumped full of righteous indignation, they demanded the FBI investigate this criminal Englishman, this pernicious document, this fake news just two weeks ago.

But, level heads insisted that it simply wasn’t true that the Steele Dossier was the catalyst that opened the FBI probe into Trump-Russia.  In fact, we were told, it was “someone inside the Trump campaign” who informed on his employer’s collusion with the Russians.  Possibly, folks speculated, it was that coffee-boy, George Papadopoulos.

What we have all forgotten because it happened so long ago is when and how this all happened. Here is the story.

Paul Wood, writing for BBC news online. 

  • 12 January 2017

And the former MI6 [Christophe Steele] agent is not the only source for the claim about Russian kompromat on the president-elect. Back in August [2016], a retired spy told me he had been informed of its existence by “the head of an East European intelligence agency”.

Later, I used an intermediary to pass some questions to active duty CIA officers dealing with the case file – they would not speak to me directly. I got a message back that there was “more than one tape“, “audio and video”, on “more than one date”, in “more than one place” – in the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and also in St Petersburg – and that the material was “of a sexual nature”.

The claims of Russian kompromat on Mr Trump were “credible”, the CIA believed.

That is why President Obama learned about them before he left office.

The “main tape” dates from November, 2013 when Trump was in Russia attending his Miss Universe competition.  While such tapes were sufficient to indicate Trump was ripe for blackmail by Russians, it did not spark the investigation we know as Russiagate, which is about money, not sex.

Last April [2016], the CIA director [John Brennan] was shown intelligence that worried him. It was – allegedly – a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.

It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence taskforce was created.

The taskforce included six agencies or departments of government. Dealing with the domestic, US, side of the inquiry, were the FBI, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Justice. For the foreign and intelligence aspects of the investigation, there were another three agencies: the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic spying.

Lawyers from the National Security Division in the Department of Justice then drew up an application. They took it to the secret US court that deals with intelligence, the Fisa court, named after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They wanted permission to intercept the electronic records from two Russian banks.

Their first application in June was rejected.  A second application was again denied in July. It wasn’t until October 2016, just 3 weeks before the election — about when Trump’s lawyer was making the payoff of hush money to a porn star — that a different FISA judge granted their third application.

Trump was not named; the Russian banks were and 3 Trump associates, two of whom are Manafort and Carter Page.  American citizens can not be subjects of FISA warrants, unless “suspicion” exists that they “may be acting as agents of a foreign power.  The object of the investigation was evidence of “money transfers from Russia to the United States, each one, if proved, is a felony offense.”  Of course, you will remember that Donald Trump possessed a personal server housed in Trump Tower that seemed to communicate ONLY with Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution.

No FISA warrant was issued on the basis of the Steele Dossier because what was in it it did not warrant it.  The FISA warrant is the official beginning of the FBI’s and, primarily at that time, the other IC agencies’ investigations.  It was spurred by a tape received by the CIA from a Baltic nation’s intelligence service.  That nation is Estonia.  [READ this article!  Even the Russians thought Trump was unfit to be president.]

What is interesting is the time period between Apirl, 2016 when the tape was in Brennan’s possession and August 4, 2016 — recall, the FISA warrant wasn’t obtained until 2 months later — when he telephoned Alexander Bortnikov of FSB (Russian Foreign Service) to warn Russia to cease and desist.  Bortnikov said, in effect, that he didn’t know what Brennan was talking about. 

What is interesting is, what further evidence might Brennan have received, that bolstered his confidence in the reliability of the tape, that he felt he had the Russians cold, and where did it come from?  With absolutely no evidence other than sound bites that have stuck in my mind over the past year, I imagine the source of Brennan’s assurance(s) of credibility came from other foreign intelligence organizations.  I don’t think he relied on an informant “inside Trump’s campaign” or Mr. Papadopolous’ drunken confession to an Australian diplomat alone.  Brennan is a professional who is more likely to trust fellow professionals.  Steele’s dossier may have impressed him, Steele being Steele of MI-6.  But enough to call his counterpart in Russia and issue a cease and desist?  No.  IMO, that would require confirming assurances from his counterparts who he considered allies and/or friends.

None of what I’ve written here precludes active interest in and investigation by the FBI into the Trump Organization for its money laundering operations, it’s shady real estate dealings, and its connections with various international crime bosses, or its gambling interests.  In fact, we know the FBI had “an interest” in Trump 5 years prior to his 2016 campaign.  We also know it had a strong and active interest in Paul Manafort’s work for Kremlin-backed, then, Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014. “Since Manafort [had] a residence at Trump Tower. . .it does raise the possibility the federal government conducted surveillance there,” which probably gave rise to Trump’s insistence that Obama ordered his wires tapped.  His building, his wires.   

Or. . .the FBI, while investigating Russian money coming into his campaign, caught Trump on tape talking to his Russian partners and investors inadvertently.  All perfectly legal.  Manafort had a history with the FBI and the FISA warrant I’ve discussed above was the second one the FBI had obtained to tap his phone.

Manafort managed to recapture the FBI’s attention when he was caught on intercepted communications with “Russian operatives.” (Here it would seem the Russian operatives were under surveillance and Manafort was caught in the net, much like Trump could have been caught in a similar net set for him.) The FBI also caught chatter among the Russians themselves that turned their attention back to Manafort. . .[A] source told CNN the FBI was not listening in June 2016, when Manafort joined a meeting at Trump Tower organized by Donald Trump, Jr., with an intriguing ensemble of characters, including a Kremlin-connected lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Whatever the FBI did find has been turned over to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. — Esquire by Jack Holmes Sep 19, 2017

Once again, Republicans, when they circle the firing squad, attack all the wrong targets.  It isn’t Clinton and Steele conspiring to entrap Trump in a web of nefarious Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.  It’s Manafort and the Russians who are conspiring to illegally finance the campaign of Putin’s Puppet.

Fortunately for us, Estonia has long distrusted the Russians and happened to be listening in to what they were conspiring at just the right time.  Fortunately, the Estonians love and value their hard-won democracy, modeled on the United States, were still are(?) our friends.

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