The Unpleasant Truth About the Kremlin and Our 2016 Election Is Starting to Emerge
Did Moscow pull off Operation TRUST 2.0 against us? We need to know the full story.
American political life over the past five years has been bitterly divided between two camps: those who think the election of Donald J. Trump had nothing to do with Russia versus those who think that election had everything to do with Russia. In extreme forms, commonly encountered on social media, the former view posits that that there was no connection whatsoever between Team Trump and Moscow, indeed crooked Democrats were the “real colluders,” while the latter take has it that Trump was a Russian patsy who was “installed by the Kremlin to destroy us.”
These are toxic caricatures devoid of logic and reason. Trumpers cannot explain why someone who allegedly had nothing to do with the Kremlin had so many weirdly nice things to say about Vladimir Putin, on multiple occasions secretly attempted to curry Moscow’s favor and campaign help, then publicly applauded a Russian intelligence front when it hurt Hillary Clinton by spreading disinformation and publishing her stolen emails. Similarly, “Resistance” types cannot explain why someone who supposedly was so deeply in bed with Moscow apparently had no idea how to get in touch with Russian intelligence, instead resorting to futile stunts like inviting a Kremlin lawyer (and intelligence agent) to Trump Tower Manhattan allegedly to discuss “adoptions.”
This convoluted saga is deeply enmeshed with the story of two competing Special Counsel investigations. The first, led by former FBI Director Bob Mueller, lasted for nearly two years yet failed to establish any firm connections between the forty-fifth president and Moscow. Skeptics noted that Mueller’s inquiry opted for strict legalism and seemed to dodge highly important counterintelligence matters in a strangely conscious fashion. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s deep, three-year investigation into similar concerns went further, establishing multiple unsettling points of contact between Team Trump and shady Russians, while stopping short of accusing the Trump campaign of outright collusion with the Kremlin (at least in the unclassified version).
Then we come to the second Department of Justice inquiry, led by Special Counsel John Durham, a veteran prosecutor, who has been investigating the 2016 election even longer than his predecessor Mueller did. High MAGA hopes that Durham would unmask the supposed Deep State plot to take down Donald Trump via the FBI counterintelligence investigation termed CROSSFIRE HURRICANE have been dashed. Durham found nothing of substance there and settled for a wrist-slap, with no prison time, for an FBI lawyer who admitted to making a false statement. Durham has enjoyed more success investigating connections between the camp of Hillary Clinton and some of the shadier aspects of the 2016 counterintelligences morass. Six weeks ago, a grand jury empaneled by Durham indicted a Clinton-linked lawyer for making a false statement to the FBI regarding a since-debunked claim regarding alleged secret communications between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. This is an obscure matter by any standards which involves a mere process crime, as the legal eagles put it.
Yesterday, however, the Durham inquiry finally hit pay-dirt, in media terms at least, with the arrest of Igor Danchenko, a 43-year-old Russian national who has worked in Washington think-tanks for years. Danchenko was arrested on charges of lying to the FBI on five separate occasions in 2017 regarding his involvement with the notorious Steele Dossier. No aspect of the bruhaha surrounding the Trump-Russia controversy was more salacious or clickbait-y than that dossier, compiled by a former senior British intelligence officer, Chris Steele, possessing extensive experience in Russian affairs. From the moment it appeared in the public domain, thanks to BuzzFeed, ten days before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the Steele Dossier, with its lurid allegations of sexual outrages and pee-pee tapes, permanently altered perceptions of what might be going on between the new president and the Kremlin.
There was always room to doubt that dossier’s value and veracity, its author’s professional acumen notwithstanding, and bona fide experts pointed out its many problems, from the start. Kremlin maven David Satter was the first to point out that the Steele Dossier looked like trademark Moscow-manufactured nonsense designed to poison the American political well, moreover in 2017 this author, too, minced few words in explaining to the public what anybody acquainted with real-world Russian intelligence tradecraft grasped: there was no reason to take the dossier at face value. As I explained:
There have always been good reasons to doubt some of Steele’s revelations. While the dossier’s depiction of Kremlin politics—what spies call “atmospherics”—are undeniably true, many of the specifics are unverifiable.
The idea that the Steele dossier represents an exercise in Chekist provokatsiya gets more plausible the more you look at it. It’s very much in the habits of Russian intelligence to disseminate a great deal of accurate information, sometimes muddied, in the service of a greater lie. The KGB’s successors are highly adept at assembling disinformation that results in more questions than answers for Western investigators. There’s no doubt that the dossier created enormous political churn in Washington—including murky assertions that haven’t been resolved yet and perhaps never will be.
Based on the revelations contained in Durham’s detailed 39-page indictment of Danchenko, it’s safe to say that the reality of the Steele Dossier was even worse than I imagined. Danchenko was clearly the main source for the notorious dossier and many of his claims regarding Team Trump were dubious when not manufactured outright. Indeed, some of Danchenko’s main bits of gossip about Trump are alleged by Durham to have been invented out of whole cloth. Here a key role was played by the individual termed “PR Executive-1” in the indictment, who has since been revealed to be Charles Dolan, Jr., a Democratic macher, Beltway fixer, and former aide to Hillary Clinton, who apparently expected to be rewarded with a plum State Department job in the Hillary administration which never happened.
Per the indictment, Danchenko and Dolan in 2016 traded third-hand gossip about Trump and his entourage, some of it wholly unsourced and simply invented, which wound up in the Steele Dossier; Danchenko is accused of lying to the FBI about his relationship with Dolan, while the latter was wiser, eventually admitting to Bureau agents that he had fabricated information which he shared with his Russian friend for Steele’s private intelligence report.
No matter how Danchenko’s legal problems proceed from here, yesterday’s arrest and indictment have permanently discredited the Steele Dossier. No matter what amount of information contained in that raw human intelligence collection may be true – and there’s always been good reason to think that some of it is true, at least in part – that work in toto now stands discredited in the public eye, thanks to Durham’s revelations about how dubiously it was assembled.
This strange saga will be familiar to intelligence doyens, and the proper term for the Danchenko-Dolan private-spy-cum-gossip operation for Steele’s benefit is a “paper mill.” We’ve been here before. In the early years of the Cold War, when U.S. intelligence had a terrible time filtering HUMINT out from behind the Iron Curtain, the newly formed CIA had to rely on a motley collage of money-hungry exiles, shadowy grifters, suspected double agents, and outright conmen claiming to possess secret intelligence from the Kremlin (or at least close). The sometimes-salacious information supplied by these spies-for-hire, most of whom served as conduits for third-hand knowledge, was difficult if not impossible to verify, and Langley paid out a lot of money for what frequently turned out to be junk in intelligence terms. If this sounds all too familiar, it should. CIA developed a serious “paper mill” problem by the early 1950s which vexed Agency leadership and took years to flush out. Most controversial were private intelligence “paper mill” operations run “off the books” for U.S. intelligence, whose espionage value customarily turned out to be nil, when not negative altogether. There’s nothing new under the spook sun, folks.
Worst of all, many “paper mill” operations turned out not just to be crooked, but actually under enemy control. The KGB and its East Bloc sister spy services made a habit of fooling CIA by using dangles and deception agents to feed junk to Western spies. This caused CIA and its partners to waste time, talent and treasure on trying to vet dodgy intelligence that was actually being authored in Moscow. Did something similar happen with the Danchenko ring? It’s worth noting that the FBI had its doubts about the Russian think-tanker long before 2016, as this newsletter recently elaborated:
The Bureau had Danchenko under counterintelligence investigation between May 2009 and March 2011 over his ties to Russian spies.
Specifically, the FBI established that Danchenko acted in certain ways that looked suspicious from a counterintelligence viewpoint. In 2005-2006, he was in touch with the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, and had multiple contacts with known Russian intelligence officers. According to the Bureau, Danchenko and one of these Russian spies “seemed very familiar with each other.” Interviews with Danchenko’s coworkers revealed that one of them thought that the think-tanker “might actually be a Russian spy.”
The most shocking sentence in Durham’s indictment, found on page eight, is the revelation that Dolan, too, wondered who his partner-in-crime was really working for:
On or about June 10, 2016, and prior to the June 2016 Planning Trip, PR Executive-1 sent an email to a U.S.-based acquaintance which reflected that PR Executive-1 and DANCHENKO had become colleagues and were exchanging information. In describing DANCHENKO, PR Executive-1 stated:
“He is too young for KGB. But 1 think he worked for FSB. Since he told me he spent two years in Iran. And when I first met him he knew more about me than I did. [winking emoticon].”
(The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or “FSB,” is the principal security agency of Russia and the principal successor agency to the KGB.)
This notion is hardly farfetched, particularly when you consider that Steele worked from 2012 to 2017 for Oleg Deripaska, one of Putin’s favorite oligarchs and a man with deep connections to the Russian “special services,” moreover it’s consistent with a century of accomplished Russian intelligence tradecraft. There’s nothing that Chekists love more than running complex offensive counterintelligence operations, particularly involving fake or controlled opposition movements, which make the other side chase its tail into exhaustion, unable to figure out up from down. This is how you wind up in the Kremlin’s “wilderness of mirrors” to cite the Langley counterspy cliché, while Moscow spymasters term the infliction of such time-wasting activities on the other side “mice games.” There’s no doubt that Russian spies have been effectively running such operations since before the Bolshevik revolution, while the classic example remains Operation TRUST, a massive counterespionage deception scheme in which Kremlin spies created a full mirage of an opposition movement inside the Soviet Union, which never existed. The TRUST fooled multiple Western intelligence agencies and remained a subject of fascination at CIA a full half-century after it wrapped up.
Did Russian intelligence pull off another Operation TRUST, involving a “paper mill” under their control, to smear and intimidate Donald Trump while creating bitter chaos and confusion in American politics? If they did so, it worked fantastically well. Experts in such matters immediately smelled a rat with the Steele Dossier. Back in 2017, the respected British author and intelligence journalist Ben Macintyre was asked by the New York Times if he believed “the Russians really have something on Trump”? His answer is worth revisiting:
I can tell you what veterans of the SIS [Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.
I’ve been discussing the Steele Dossier since it appeared, and pretty much all the Western counterspies I know who are acquainted with Chekist tradecraft agree with that SIS theory about what happened in 2016. We already know that the Steele Dossier was a Democratic party operation that was funded by Team Clinton, via the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS, but the more important question remains: Was it also a Russian deception operation? That’s unanswerable at present, based on publicly available information, but it seems rather likely that it was, given what we know about longstanding Chekist modus operandi. If the Durham inquiry can persuade Igor Danchenko to talk, in exchange for a light sentence, perhaps the full truth will emerge.