It pains me to do it, but I feel compelled to comment on the Trump dossier. I will not call it the “intelligence dossier” because it is the antithesis of that. It is a retard dossier, but the retarded has become a political reality. And because the story of its release has very troubling implications.
I will just try to focus on a few high level points.
First, the document’s credibility is undermined by its narrative voice, which is best described as third person omniscient. This is is often reserved for bad fiction written by amateurish writers, which is the case here. There is no way that any private intelligence operative, ex-MI6 or not, would have so many sources who knew so many important people who were present when said important people had conversations about extremely sensitive–and indeed explosive–topics.
Second, even overlooking that, the chain of transmission of each story is rather long. A source observes the principals (e.g., Putin and Ivanov) having a conversation; tells that to a (presumably) Russian contact of Christopher (not Remington!) Steele; who tells Steele who then transcribes it and passes it along. Even in a game of telephone with honest players there is an appreciable opportunity that the story will become garbled along the way, especially since at least one translation was likely involved for each story. And why should we possibly believe any one of the participants in these chains, each of whom had incentives to lie and embellish? Consider Steele’s (presumably Russian) intermediaries. They were no doubt paid, and their income was dependent on the putative salience of their information. Passing along “I had lunch with Ivanov’s chief of staff. He had borscht” wouldn’t command a very high price, would it? Dishing dirt about Ivanov conversations with Putin would be much more valuable. And who could verify the stories? Who could even cross check basic facts? So spice it up!
Especially when it appears that the buyer of the information (both at the first stage, Steele, and his downstream political customers) hardly seems to be skeptical, and has a definite desire for the lurid, the incentives of the intermediaries to make stuff up are strong indeed. Not to mention the fact that the alleged sources (if they exist) have an incentive to tell the stories they want heard.
In other words, this type of communication is inherently unreliable. The incentives to fabricate are strong, and the penalties for fabrication are negligible.
Third, some of the stories are real clangers. I’ll focus on two.
The first story claims that in 2015 Sechin told Carter Page, an alleged Trump emissary, that if Trump would lift sanctions, Sechin would sell Trump the 19.5 percent share of Rosneft to be privatized. Look, I think Sechin can be a moron, but there’s no way he could possibly think that would work. Just how would Trump hide the acquisition of such a large asset? How would he pay for it? How would he possibly deal with the political maelstrom that this acquisition would cause? Maybe Sechin envisioned a Russian-style (or Mafia-style) acquisition, in which a straw buyer would take ownership, but Trump would be the economic beneficiary. But even that would be wildly unworkable.
The second story–stories actually–relate to Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s now ex-chief of staff. A note about Ivanov. He is a scary guy. A real Chekist, who served in the KGB, SVR, and KGB. He was reputed to be a Chekist’s Chekist. He is the kind of guy about whom you could say (and about whom I did say): “Be careful what you ask for if you desire getting rid of Putin. Somebody like Ivanov could take his place.” And he is exactly the kind of guy you would expect not to be blabbing about things said in confidence to Putin, or with anyone else.
In the dossier, several conversations between Ivanov and Putin are described. In one set, Ivanov is harshly critical of the attempts to influence the US election. On July 30, the dossier claims that the Kremlin is concerned that the operation is spinning out of control. On 5 August, Ivanov allegedly (I will drop the “allegedly” hereafter) tells a confident who tells Steele’s source that he is angry at the turn of events, and blames Peskov for screwing things up. Pesky is “scared shitless” that the operation is resulting in huge blowback, and that he will be blamed. Ivanov claims to have opposed the operation from the beginning, and claims Medvedev does too.
Five days later (!), Ivanov claims that Putin is “generally satisfied with the progress of the operation to date.” So pleased, in fact, that he has a drink with Ivanov to celebrate!
I’ll pause here for a second, to give you the opportunity to test your knowledge about Putin. See the problem with this story?
Yes: Putin is a teetotaler. Maybe it was just Ivanov drinking, but this detail hits a very false note.
But even overlooking that, according to the dossier, in 5 days the Kremlin goes from being “scared shitless” about the blowback, to being generally satisfied.
But wait! Two days after Putin and Ivanov were toasting the success of the influence operation, Ivanov is fired unceremoniously–and shockingly. The next month, the dossier claims that Ivanov was fired because he had given Putin “poor advice” on the operation. Whereas the earlier telling in the dossier portrays Ivanov as an opponent of the operation, by mid-September the dossier claims that Ivanov (and the SVR!) had advised Putin that the operation “would be effective an plausibly deniable with little blowback.” The blowback was so severe that Putin ordered everyone to dummy up, and deny, deny, deny.
August 10th (or thereabouts)–“Серге́й, Давайте выпьем за успех нашего дела!” August 12th, Putin does his Donald Trump imitation: “вы уволены!”
Maybe there is a way of squaring all this, but I don’t see it. Is he [Ivanov] a supporter of the deal, or ain’t he? Was he afraid of blowback from Peskov’s stupidity, or was he convinced there would be no blowback? Was Putin bipolar, and serially displeased, pleased, displeased, pleased?
One possibility is that Ivanov was changing his story in response to shifting political winds in the Kremlin. But if that’s so, every other source could have been doing so as well. And recognizing that, no statement in the entire freaking dossier can be taken at face value. Instead, even if the statements were made (a big if), they were all self-serving tales told to advance the tellers’ interests.
I am not the only one to call BS on all this. My colleague, Paul Gregory, does so as well, and he has much deeper experience in Russia, including long work in Soviet archives (including some intelligence documents). He too ridicules the Sechin offer, though I don’t think (as Paul does) that Sechin was offering the stake for free.
Paul’s conclusion is that the document was written by a Russian, probably with background from the security services.
Wrap your head around the possibilities inherent in that, especially when you consider the twisted ways that spies think. Given the impact the document has had, and assuming that this impact was anticipated by those who prepared it (or at least, provided the stories that Steele typed up), and the “Putin hacked the election to help Trump” is not the only hypothesis in the running. Please submit your hypotheses in the comments.
One last point. As I mentioned in response to a comment by elmer earlier today, the way this document came to light is very disturbing and casts a very ominous light on the US intelligence agencies. This document, by multiple tellings, has been circulating for some time. Harry Reid referred to it in a letter to the FBI (or at least, that’s obvious in retrospect). Multiple journalists have admitted that they had seen it. No media organization would report it, however, because it was so clearly unsubstantiated, and incapable of being substantiated.
But lo and behold, the dossier is allegedly mentioned in an intelligence briefing given to Trump. “Trump told about possible kompromat” is a legit story, right? And that makes the source of the claim that US intelligence forwarded to Trump a legitimate story, right? So soon after the story about the briefing hits, Bottom Feeder–excuse me, Buzz Feed–publishes it.
In other words, a necessary condition for the release was that the intelligence community tells Trump about it. In the public interest, of course. (And in the event, it was a sufficient condition as well.)
Spare me. This document had been around more than a crack whore, so of course Trump knew of its existence. He didn’t need some anal retentive type from Langley to tell him about it. The briefing served no public purpose. But it did serve the purpose of green lighting the release of the document.
It could be that the CIA/FBI/DNI etc. knew what the media’s Pavlovian response would be to the LEAK about the briefing, and didn’t need to collude with CNN or whomever to ensure that things would play out as they did. Or perhaps the intelligence community did collude with some in the media. That’s of secondary importance. What is of primary importance is that the intelligence agencies–with the assistance along the way of John McCain–most likely deliberately schemed to ensure the publication of this document days before Trump’s inauguration. A document that they had to know was full of falsehoods, and likely a falsehood in its entirety. (If they didn’t know, we are just screwed in a different way, being served by asses instead of demons.) And a document that was sure to have explosive political consequences.
In other words, there is a rogue intelligence operation here, and it isn’t Russian.
This is beyond the pale, and bodes very ill for the coming months.