Streetwise Professor

March 15, 2018

The Netherworld of the Russian Security State, Where Angels Fear to Tread

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:14 pm

Relations between Russia and the West–most particularly the UK, but the US, France, and Germany as well–are being roiled by the poisoning (using a nerve agent) of a former Russian double agent,Sergei Skripal, who had been exchanged for Russian spies in 2010.

So whodunnit?

I have no idea. And anyone who claims they know is full of it.  We have a very limited set of facts that can fit any number of competing–and indeed mutually exclusive–hypotheses.

Occam’s Razor says that an individual or individuals with connections to the Russian security services is responsible: who else would have access to a particularly nasty nerve agent developed under great secrecy and produced in large quantity in the USSR?*

Vladimir Putin certainly qualifies as an individual with connections to the Russian security services, and the reflexive reaction by many in the West has been to blame him personally.  However, although Putin is a member of the set of individuals with connections to the Russian security services, the set is not a singleton: there are thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of other members.  Some of these may not even be in the security services (e.g., mafia elements or an oligarch whom Skripal double crossed).

Like many in his profession, Skripal was a fundamentally dishonest man who could play both sides.  Men like that make many enemies.  His attempted murder could be very similar to Murder on the Orient Express, where the problem is not the lack of suspects, but a surfeit thereof.

My suspicion is that Skripal was far too minor a player, and one too far beyond his sell-by date, to warrant Putin’s personal attention.  But this cannot be ruled out.  Given the seismic consequences of such an act, the implications of Putin’s personal involvement would be ominous indeed.  He would be risking a superpower confrontation over a has-been: and for what? To gain a momentary burst of popularity to secure an electoral victory that was inevitable in any event?  A sort of burning of the boats, to bind Russians to him in opposition to the West?  To provoke a confrontation?

These are not inconceivable possibilities, but they seem so extreme–which is why that I am skeptical that Putin was involved directly.

The “Putin did it” claim that is so widely repeated is largely a reflection of the cartoon image of a Russia in which Putin is all knowing, all seeing, and all powerful, and where nothing in Russia, not even the fall of a sparrow, occurs but at his direction.

An alternative explanation is actually more plausible–and more frightening.  That there are elements with connections to the Russian security services who can carry out such an act without Putin’s permission.  The prospect of rogue elements operating in such a reckless way is truly sobering, especially since one predictable consequence is to create a confrontation between superpowers.

I have no doubt there are elements in Russia who want to provoke such a confrontation. Which is a reason to remember that however bad Putin is, his potential successor could be far worse.

The fundamental problem here is that Russia is so opaque, and there are so many scary types operating in the shadows, that it will be impossible to fix responsibility with any precision. We know Putin’s address, and his previous acts–real and imagined–make it emotionally satisfying to many to give him a knock. But we cannot know with any certainty–and we run the risk that even more ominous figures are counting on such a reaction in order to bring on a confrontational crisis.

The most likely outcome is an even greater estrangement between Russia and the West, and the potential return of a Cold War with a temperature approximating that in the 1950s.  Unless the perpetrators were mouth-breathing idiots similar to the criminals in Fargo, they would have known that this would be the result.  Tragically, the list of those who might have such an agenda is long indeed, and for all the hyperventilating, I don’t put Putin on the top of it.  It would actually be better if it was as simple as that.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  And angels surely fear to tread in the netherworld of the Russian security services.

*It pains me to acknowledge that the credibility of Western security services, including notably MI6 and the CIA, has been so compromised as of late that the credibility of the claim that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by Новичок is less than absolute.

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March 12, 2018

Into the Rosneft Black Hole–And No, I Don’t Mean an Oil Well

Filed under: China,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 9:36 am

If you didn’t think the Rosneft-Glencore-QIA-Intessa-CEFC deal could get more bizarre–WRONG! Today Reuters reports that during the period of time that Chinese Firm of International Mystery CEFC agreed to buy a 14.6 percent share in Rosneft from whom it was parked initially–Glencore and QIA, funded by Intessa Saopaolo and ???–it was paying loan-shark rates to secure short term financing:

But from at least the second half of last year CEFC was approaching shadow bankers – non-traditional lenders – for costly short-term loans, said six sources with direct knowledge, in a sign of the strained liquidity the company was facing.

In early January, CEFC borrowed 1 billion yuan ($158.00 million) from the Shanghai-based Bida Holding Group, also known as U.Trust Holding Group, for a 15-day loan with a daily interest rate of 0.1 percent, equivalent to an annual interest rate of 36 percent, said one person with direct knowledge of the matter.

And, of course, it was recently revealed that the head of the CFIM–Ye Jianming–is under investigation for “economic crimes.” And an arm of the government of Shanghai has taken control of CEFC Energy–the part of the convoluted group that actually agreed to buy the Rosneft shares. Given the news relating to CEFC’s desperate need for funds in the shadow banking market, this now is quite clearly a shadow bailout.

More puzzles: at the time the deal was announced CEFC made a “huge” initial payment. To whom? Where is the money now? Glencore states that it anticipates the deal will close in the first half of 2018–meaning that they haven’t been paid.  Intessa says “no problema! The deal will-a get-a done!” Meaning it hasn’t been done and they are still on the hook.  The Qataris of course say nothing.

So where’s the money? Show me the money!

Some great due diligence by all involved, no? Sell out to a virtually unknown company with the creditworthiness of a busted racetrack punter. No doubt everyone was too anxious to get out to look too closely at the buyer, and perhaps they took it for granted, or on faith, or something, that CEFC was really a stalking horse for the Chinese government, and so no worries!

The Rosneft “privatization” has been opaque since day one.  And no surprise, as it involves a convergence of the most opaque entities on the planet: Russia, China–specifically a virtually unknown Chinese conglomerate with apparent ties to the Chinese security apparatus–Middle East investors, and a Swiss commodities firm.  Have them walk into a bar, and you have the beginnings of a great joke. Put all these together, and you get a black hole from which no light can possibly emerge.

And I say again: the one entity that should be shedding light because it is a listed public company in the UK–Glencore–provides little more information than the other conspirators involved in this drama.  The FCA should be all over Glencore like flies on cow pies. But it isn’t–although the recent Beaufort Securities scandal suggests its lassitude should be no surprise.

So what happens next? I have no idea. But whatever happens, there’s no guarantee that the world at large will know what actually happens, given this lot of opaque–and unaccountable–participants.


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March 1, 2018

Teetotaler Putin Channels the Bourbons–And I Don’t Mean Old Granddad or Maker’s Mark

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:35 pm

Talleyrand famously said of the Bourbons: “They had learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.” That thought came to mind in reading more about Putin’s speech.  He has obviously not forgotten a single slight, perceived or real, from the west, ever.  But he obviously learned nothing from the demise of the USSR, which was economically ruined attempting to compete in military power with a far more economically vibrant and productive rival–the west generally, and the US in particular. If anything, the economic gap has widened since the Cold War.  Indeed, this is especially the case in most military production: the hollowing out of the Russian military-industrial complex is manifest, and the loss of skilled labor in particular has been severe.  The USSR was unable to compete in an arms race, and Russia is in an even worse position to do so.

Yet Putin is announcing a new arms race.

Perhaps this is why Putin’s speech focused on nuclear weapons.  It is the one area in which Russia is competitive, and may actually have some advantages.

But the enemy (and Putin definitely perceives the US to be an enemy) gets a vote too, and Putin cannot unilaterally limit the locus of competition to nuclear weapons.  The US is likely to respond to a more truculent Russia with some new nuclear weapons (e.g., air-launched cruise missiles), but also by expanding conventional forces, and by innovating in technologies that Russia cannot hope to compete in.

This is a sobering thought though–or if you look at it a little differently, one that might get you to hit the bourbon. If nukes are the only tool in Russia’s kit, the likelihood of use becomes higher.

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I’ve Been Talking About Igor For Years Now, Thank You

Filed under: Commodities,Energy,Russia — The Professor @ 10:20 am

The FT ran a long profile of Igor Sechin today.

Nothing in the piece should be news to those who have followed my coverage of his escapades over the years. (I still miss the mullet!)

There are some interesting numbers in the piece that do speak volumes.  Such as Rosneft’s market cap–$65 billion. (ExxonMobil–$324b. Shell–$266b.) The number of employees–almost 300,000. (ExxonMobil–73,500.  Shell–92,000.)  The fact that Rosneft paid $55b for TNK BP–and still has a market cap of only $65b.

Rosneft is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been stitched together over the years from stolen body parts.  Igor is therefore a fitting name for its CEO.

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Putin: Living Down to Caricature

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:11 am

The old caricature of the Soviet Union–which like most caricatures merely exaggerated a fundamental reality–was that it was “Upper Volta with missiles.”  In his State of the State address today, Vladimir Putin gave ample proof that the caricature applies to contemporary (I won’t say “modern”) Russia as well.

The most memorable part of Putin’s speech was a growling, defiant boast–complete with animation–that Russia had introduced new nuclear missiles that could not be defeated by missile defenses.  He also brandished new cruise missiles (which seem to breach the INF treaty, despite previous Russian claims to the contrary) and a submersible drone carrying a massive nuclear warhead.

The rest of his speech was boilerplate about promising to halve Russia’s impoverished population (an implicit acknowledgement that it had grown in his most recent term), and raising expenditures on infrastructure and health care (which has also suffered greatly in recent years).  Lost in the rhetoric was the Russia has stagnated economically under his rule.  The country is a caught in a double trap: the middle income trap and the resource economy trap.  Further, Putin has no real prospect of escaping either, let alone both.

The speech reveals, I think, that Putin understands all this.  Frankly, he realizes that the only reason Russia matters now is its nuclear arsenal, and the widespread belief that it is willing to use it.  He further realizes that this reality will only grow in the remainder of his political life, as Russia falls further and further behind economically.  So he brandishes his missiles, and mouths platitudes about economic development.  Upper Volta with missiles–and nuclear sub drones!–indeed.

As such, the speech gives a clear foreshadowing of what is in store for post-re-election. International pugnacity combined with domestic political and economic Potemkin villages. The Putin Hamster Wheel keeps spinning.

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February 27, 2018

Well Played Igor, Well Played–But Not Well Paid, Collateral Notwithstanding

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 7:33 pm

I recall being quite amused at those who panicked over Rosneft investing large amounts of money in Venezuela’s cratering national oil company PDVSA, thinking that it gave the Russians a vital foothold in America’s back yard. They’ve outsmarted us again! said this lot.

My thought was the exact opposite: they were utter fools for plunging billions into a country and a company run by socialist lunatics (excuse me, “Bolivarian” lunatics), and figured that it would not go well:

Rosneft lent large money to a deadbeat. It’s not going to get paid back so it is seizing assets, and will end up losing money. Playing repo man is hardly the road to riches. It just mitigates the losses from making a bad loan, and it is the bad loan that is the real story here.

But it gets better!  Repo Man Igor outsmarted himself by getting Rosneft’s collateral in the US in the form of a lien on Citgo’s US refineries.  But given sanctions, the probability that he will be able to repossess them can be rounded up to zero.

Now oil trading firm Mercuria senses weakness, and is involved in an effort to take the collateral off Igors hands:

Commodity trader Mercuria has asked the US Treasury for permission to buy out a $1.5bn loan between Russia’s Rosneft and Venezuela’s state oil company, which had raised the prospect of Moscow taking control of refineries on US soil.

. . . .

“Rosneft would have faced an uphill struggle to get approval to exercise a stake in Citgo so this avoids a potential diplomatic strain between the US and Russia if this deal goes ahead,” said Mr Mallinson.

“If this signals that Russia is looking to reduce its loans to Venezuela rather than offering more support that leaves Caracas with nowhere obvious to turn.”

Rosneft has said it is unwilling to extend further loans to PDVSA, many of which have been secured against crude supplies, as the country’s economic crisis starts to hit oil output from the country. The Russian company is seen as keen to reduce its exposure to Venezuela as oil output falls, with the country seen as precariously close to defaulting on its debts.

Well played, Igor. Bravo! The move was so brilliant, that now he’s desperate–sorry, “keen” doesn’t quite cover it–to get out.

Rosneft’s bargaining leverage is pretty much nonexistent.  PDVSA is circling the drain, with a collapse in oil output and revenues.  It can’t pay back the Russians. The collateral is off limits to them.  So Rosneft faces a choice between a big fat zero, and whatever Mercuria et al deign offer it. Perhaps Rosneft can scare up other bidders, but the company holds a very weak hand, and will be lucky to walk away with kopecs on the ruble.

Keep this in mind whenever anyone tries to convince you of Putin’s or Sechin’s strategic brilliance. In this case, they have brilliantly succeeded in flushing several billion into the Venezuelan cesspool, with no real recourse or exit strategy.

They can take some comfort, though, having lent Venezuela a mere $5 billion. The even more brilliant Chinese lent 11 times as much. So there’s that, Igor!

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February 16, 2018

Now That He’s Tackled the ORGANIZATION, When Will Mueller Indict Grandfather Frost?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 10:19 pm

Today Mueller indicted 13 Russians for “interfering” in the US election.  The indictment would be hilarious, if it weren’t so tragic: for nigh on a year the country has been transfixed and the government convulsed by an investigation that is descending into farce.

So this is the best that a “dream team” (nightmare would be more like it, given the presence of people like Andrew Weissman) of prosecutors can come up with:

August 18, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators sent money via interstate wire to another real U.S. person recruited by the ORGANIZATION, using one of their false U.S. personas, to build a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform.

No, really.

The ORGANIZATION. Yeah. Just like the cosa nostra or the Cali Cartel or something. You cannot make up this stuff.

As yet there is no evidence of collusion (which is not a crime, actually), let alone a conspiracy, between anyone in the Trump campaign or administration and any Russian individual or organization. Indeed, the fact that Mueller apparently feels that he can waste his time on such trivialities suggests strongly that there is no evidence of anything untoward, let alone criminal.

Amidst all the harrumphing, all I can say is that if the republic can’t survive such Mickey Mouse efforts as described in the Mueller indictment, it doesn’t deserve to survive.

Deep thinkers like Ben Sasse say that Putin is attempting to raise doubts about American institutions.  That is unnecessary: the institutions are doing a bang up job at that without any foreign assistance.

Further, as I noted in a talk on the forthcoming Russian election at Rice University last week, there is nothing new here. Nothing. The Russians have been doing this (and far worse) continuously since, oh, around November 8, 1917.  They almost certainly did it 99 years later out of habit, rather than conviction, or a sincere belief that it would have any effect.

But it has had an effect, because by obsessing about it the American political class is actually ensuring that Putin and his creatures are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.  This obsession, moreover, is not driven by the real threat posed by the Russian effort, but by the need of the political losers to excuse their failure, and to destroy the usurper who deprived them of what should have been theirs by divine right.

The indictment is all for show, because the Russians are in, well, Russia, and hence out of reach of US law enforcement. Mueller might as well have indicted Putin–or Grandfather Frost, for that matter–for all the real effect it will have.

But Mueller desperately needs to show that he is actually doing something.  In this he has succeeded. He has shown that he is chasing phantoms, and wreaking havoc in the process.  But since he is accountable to no one, and politically sacrosanct, he will go on and on, to serve the political class and to justify his existence. A perfect illustration of the a-constitutional monstrosity that is a special counsel.

Shut. It. Down.

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Putin’s Rock-and-a-Hard-Place Situation in Syria

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 11:17 am

The Syrian war has been dragging on for a bloody seven years, but now the sh*t is truly getting real–because now it has become a cockpit for global and regional power rivalries. The most fraught development involves the potential for escalating conflict between Iran and its proxies (notably Hezbollah) and Israel–and that puts Vladimir Putin and Russia into a very difficult position.

Last week an Iranian drone allegedly violated Israeli airspace. The Israelis shot down the drone, and then launched a massive attack that apparently destroyed half of Syria’s air defenses, losing an F-16 in the process.  The Israelis also bombed Iranian forces in Syria. Things have settled down a bit since then, but the potential for escalation is clearly present.

Despite Russia’s long-term (and by long-term I mean centuries-long) rivalry with Iran/Persia, the countries have been de facto allies in Syria because both have a strong interest in saving the Assad regime.  But the interests in Assad are vastly different, and now that the Syrian regime’s survival seems assured, those interests are not aligned.

Iran views the Assad regime as vital because under its control Syria is a vital component of Iran’s anti-Israel strategy.  In particular, Syria is the essential logistic bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  With Syria in unfriendly hands, Hezbollah would be completely isolated.  With Syria in Assad’s hands, Iran can funnel massive supplies to Israel’s arch-foe.  Given the centrality of Israel to Iran’s strategic ambitions, Assad is a vital Iranian national interest, and an ongoing national interest.

Putin’s interests in Syria were always more limited.  A naval base (which would be completely useless in a real shooting war given its isolation and Russia’s lack of a real blue water navy), a few airbases, and an ability to reassert Russia as a player in the Middle East. Those objectives have largely been achieved, and Putin was no doubt hoping that the stabilization of the Syrian regime would permit a drawdown of Russian activities there.

Furthermore, Putin has always tried to maintain good relations with Israel.  Netanyahu and other high-ranking Israelis have made numerous trips to Moscow.

But if Iran pushes issues with Israel, the Jewish state’s heretofore relatively benign approach to the Syrian regime (which has involved no more than occasional punitive strikes and a largely hands-off attitude in the Syrian civil war) will change. The regime is Iran’s and Hezbollah’s center of gravity, and if Iran escalates confrontation with Israel either from Lebanon or Syria directly, Israel will hit Assad’s regime very hard.  This will again put its survival at risk, and cost Putin what he has gained so far.

In other words, it is in Russia’s interest to restrain Iran, but it is not clear that Iran can be restrained. Putin has nothing to gain from an Iran-Israel conflict in Syria and Lebanon, and all that he has gained so far is at risk from such a conflict.  For its part, if Iran decides to escalate, it means that it has decided that the Syrian regime’s vulnerability to local forces has been largely eliminated, and it doesn’t really need Russia anymore.

All of which means that Putin is now largely at the mercy of a highly ideological regime with an agenda that not only does Putin not share (the destruction of Israel), but which he actually opposes.

Note that Russia has also been exploring cooperation with Iran’s other arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, especially in the field of energy.  Siding with Iran puts that at risk too.

So what will Putin do? Hard to know. But it is clear he has no real good options.

The other big story involving Russia in Syria relates to the devastating American response to an attack mounted on a base of US-supported fighters where some American advisers were located. The US responded with extreme–and I mean extreme–violence. In response to a battalion-sized attack, they threw just about everything in the arsenal at the assault–artillery, F-15Es, MQ-9 drones, AH-64 Apaches, B-52s(!), and AC-130s.

This extremely forceful response was clearly sending a message.  It reminds me of what Mattis told Iraqi tribal leaders: “I come in peace. I did not bring artillery. But if you fuck with me, I will kill you all.”  The assaulting force was f*cking with the US, and Mattis’ military responded by pretty much killing them all.

They’ll think twice next time. And that’s the point.

The biggest mystery is the identity of “them all.” Was it regime paramilitaries leavened with a few Russians, or a force predominately made up of Russian mercenaries? The Russians first denied Russians were killed, but after some widows went public it admitted to the deaths of 5 Russians.  Other reports, supposedly sourced from Russian military sources, put the casualty toll in the hundreds, with 100-200 KIA. (The Russian government dismisses these reports as “disinformation,” but its credibility is near zero.)

The big question is why was the attack made? A purely regime-directed operation that used Russian mercenaries without the knowledge or approval of the Russian military? (Highly doubtful.) An attempt by the Russians to test the Americans, or to send a message? (If so, the answer was given with extreme prejudice.) One theory floating around in Russia is that the mercenaries (from the firm Вагнер) had become inconvenient to the Russian military and government, and were set up to be destroyed.  I have no idea–I just hope that Mattis, Trump, et al do.

Then there’s the conflict between the US and Turkey over support for Kurdish fighters (who were the only anti-ISIS troops who can, in the words of George Patton, “fight their way out of a piss-soaked paper bag”).  Turkey has mounted an attack into Syria, and Erdogan has threatened to give the US an “Ottoman slap” if we interfere. (By the way–did the Ottomans have nukes? Just wondering.)

All in all, Syria makes Game of Thrones look simple, and now the potential for a conflict between the big dogs is greater than ever. It’s hard to see this ending well for anyone–Vladimir Putin least of all.

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February 10, 2018

Counterintelligence Follies–What a Country!

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 8:02 pm

One thing that seems to have passed without notice in the furore over Carter Page is the utter implausibility of the Russians using him in a high-level clandestine outreach to Donald Trump.  No, implausible not because of Page’s fringe-status–though that would have probably been sufficient–but because of the fact that Page had been in contact with Russian intelligence operatives who were eventually arrested by the FBI.

We now know that Page was one of the individuals (“Male-1”) cited by the FBI agent in the complaint against the three Russians.  Now the Russians might not have known for certain that Page was “Male-1” or anyone else cited in the complaint, but you can be damn sure that they would have identified every American the indicted Russians had been in contact with, and every one of them would have been under suspicion.  Indeed, the detail from the recorded conversation involving Page and his background included in the report would probably have been sufficient for Russian intelligence to identify him.

So we are supposed to believe that less than two years after the indictment, the Russians would have thrown open the doors to Page, granted him an audience with Igor Sechin, and then proceeded to include him in a campaign to bribe an American presidential candidate?  A guy who had already been interviewed by the FBI, and hence was at the very least in the crosshairs of US counterintelligence, and even possibly an asset thereof?  A guy who had been involved in burning three of their operatives?

As. Effing. If.

Except, maybe, as part of an elaborate scheme to spread disinformation about Trump.

But there is no way that that anyone who had come in contact with the indicted Russian agents would have been used as part of a serious operation to bribe a US president.

If the FBI had actually entertained the possibility that the Steele dossier was legitimate (which, of course, they might never have done), they would have had to asked themselves: why would the Russians conspire with a guy that they had every reason to suspect was in league with, or compromised, by the US counterintelligence? That alone should have been sufficient either to discredit the dossier, or conditional on accepting the truth of the dossier, concluding that the Sechin offer was part of a disinformation scheme.

Stephen McIntyre makes an important observation about the dossier’s claims regarding the Page-Sechin meetings.  Specifically, the first mention in the dossier (in July) of the meetings is lacking in specifics regarding (a) the “brokerage fee”, and (b) Page’s assurance that Trump would lift sanctions.  Miraculously, the second mention of the meeting–in a Steele report three months after the alleged meeting–includes these details.  Said details, of course, were included in the FISA application. And get this: the last Steele report that adds these apparently essential details was produced (or should I say “invented”?) 4 days before the FBI approached the court.

You know exactly what happened, don’t you? The FBI tells Steele: “This is all you got? We need more than this.” And like a short order chef, Steele starts cooking, hits the little bell with his spatula, and serves up a steaming pile of hash, made to order.

Which provides further evidence that the FBI knew all along that it was providing fiction to the FISA court.  Unless, of course, you are going to choose option “B”–that the FBI were clueless, credulous morons.  (There is no option “C”.)

In other counterintelligence follies, the NYT reported that the CIA was duped into paying a Russian $100,000 (and had agreed to pay $900,000 more) in exchange for stolen hacking tools and dirt on Trump. The story is sourced to the Russian, and to US officials.

The CIA denies, of course.

It is clear that the story about paying for stolen hacking tools is utter tripe. You don’t pay for what can be–and has been–copied, and what you already own. So if this did happen, it means that what was really bought was dirt on Trump, and that was the intent all along. If this is what went down, then no doubt that the arrangement broke down after the first meeting because the Russian delivered such obvious garbage that even anti-Trump CIA people realized it was worthless.

If this deal did occur, it’s also almost certain that the Russian approached the CIA because word was out that the agency was actively seeking information on Trump, and the Russian sensed an opportunity.

Whether this happened or not is actually far less interesting than why it was leaked.  Maybe the Russian was the one who initiated the contact with the NYT, but somewhere along the line “US officials” corroborated it.

Now who would that be? My guess is that these are pro-Trump officials engaged in a clandestine war with elements in the CIA.

Like Yakov Smirnoff says–“What a country! America–I love it!

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February 2, 2018

American Siloviki

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Profesor 2 @ 3:43 pm

The long anticipated–and by many feared–release of the House Intelligence Committee majority’s letter on the origins of the Carter Page FISA warrant came out today.  From the pre-release wailing, rending of garments, and gnashing of teeth over the grave threat that it posed to national security, one would have thought it would have contained nuclear launch codes and shocking revelations about Area 51.  In fact, it was anticlimactic, and demonstrated what any sentient being should have been able to figure out: that the FBI and DOJ relied upon the dodgy, fundamentally tainted Fusion GPS/Steele/DNC dossier to obtain a FISA warrant to spy on Page–and hence on others in the Trump campaign.

Anticlimactic, but damning and disgusting nonetheless. Particularly given the revelation that Andrew McCabe, erstwhile deputy director of the FBI, admitted under oath that but for the dossier, the FISA warrant would never have been sought in the first place.  It was clearly pivotal, despite all of the desperate attempts in the media and among Congressional Democrats over the last few days to insinuate that Page had long been on counterintelligence radar.  (This actually cuts the other way–if the pre-dossier evidence against him was so strong, why wasn’t he under surveillance until after the dossier was obtained?)

The essence of the memo (just described) doesn’t really require much discussion.  Those facts speak for themselves. A few details do deserve some comment.

One is the use of a tactic that I have mentioned as being characteristic of KGB methods (though they are no doubt a staple of all intelligence services): planting “information” in a media source as a way of laundering it, enhancing its credibility, and getting it into circulation.  The typical use of this technique is to get the planted information (or disinformation) into the media foodchain so that it gets disseminated more widely.  Here the use of the technique was far more sinister. It was recycled through a friendly journalist (Michael Isikoff) who was then cited as corroboration in the FISA application.

The memo leaves some wiggle room for the FBI and DOJ to claim that they didn’t know that Steele had approached Isikoff, but this requires them to claim that they can’t add 2 and 2: once they read the Isikoff article, knowing what Steele had told them they had to have known that Steele was the source. (Steele apparently tried to craft a cover story by pointing the FBI to a report containing similar information prepared by Clinton crony Cody Shearer–thereby providing a possible alternative source for the Isikoff story.)    Furthermore, within a few weeks the FBI learned that Steele was talking to journalists, and they fired him–yet they did not inform the FISA court about that their initial application was tainted in their applications for renewal.  (I further note that since the FBI fired him–that means they hired him!)

And the renewals brings up another issue: one of the signatures on at least one renewal was Rod Rosenstein’s.  You know, the guy who appointed Mueller and who is overseeing the independent counsel investigation for DOJ because of Session’s recusal.  What the holy F? Rosenstein’s involvement in the FISA process, which is deeply embedded in the Russia investigation, means that he is conflicted as hell.  He should have had nothing whatsoever to do with the appointment of the Special Counsel, and nothing to do now with overseeing him.  This is particularly true since Rosenstein’s knowledge must have included the fact that the original warrant was the fruit of a poisoned tree, and that he failed to disclose that to the FISA court.

James Comey’s fingerprints are all over this as well.  I can’t wait to hear his deep exegesis on the ethics of swearing to a court about the veracity of “salacious, unverified” (his words!) info produced by a rabid partisan and paid for by a presidential campaign to get a warrant to spy on Americans.  And to the ethics of withholding material information from the FISA court.

This last is particularly and disgustingly ironic given that one of the FBI’s objections to the release of the memo was that it omitted relevant facts. I can’t imagine what omitted fact would reverse the conclusions that flow from those that are included.  Putting that aside, the FBI’s objections give a new meaning to chutzpah.

The pre-release shrieking about the memo was beyond hysterical.  Among the most hysterical claims (made by Leon Panetta and others) was that a release of the memo would unleash a Constitutional crisis.

Just how would the Chief Executive’s declassification of a document about the actions of parts of the executive branch constitute a Constitutional crisis? The President holds ultimate classification authority, and is responsible for the execution of the laws and the conduct of executive branch departments, agencies, and employees. Disclosing information about the misbehavior of executive branch officials does not represent a Constitutional crisis: if anything, it is the misbehavior of those officials during a presidential election that raise the issue of such a crisis.

Some of the reporting and commentary on this issue has been utterly incredible (in many senses of the word).  For example, Trump overruled current-FBI director Wray’s objection to releasing the memo.  The WaPo framed this as “Trump defies Wray.” Um, who the hell works for whom? If there is defiance going on, it is Wray’s going public with his objections to the actions of his Constitutional superior.  Wray should have raised his objections in private to Trump, and if overruled (as he was, in the event), kept his mouth shut in public, or resigned–and then kept his mouth shut. To lobby publicly (and disingenuously, by raising national security concerns) in an attempt to pressure his superior into doing something is beyond the pale.

Or should be, anyways. But one thing that this entire sordid episode has demonstrated is that the bureaucracy generally, and the intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in particular, consider themselves an independent power, a co-equal–superior actually–branch of government, the Constitution be damned. Trump is deemed the usurper.  Indeed, it is clear that many senior members of the FBI, DOJ, and the intelligence community considered it their right to intervene in the election in order to prevent Trump’s election, and failing that, to kneecap his presidency. And virtually all of the political class in the US is on their side. This is the real Constitutional crisis.

You should view this as a Constitutional danger regardless of your partisan leanings. For ask yourself: would you like the same to be done to your guy (or gal)?

It is also disgustingly ironic that in a fervid controversy about the alleged intervention of the Russian siloviki into an American election reveals that high-ranking American officials in control of the vast powers of US law enforcement and intelligence used siloviki methods (including most likely disinformation planted by Russian siloviki!–you can’t make this up!) in an attempt to influence an American election and then to cripple the winner of that election when their original plotting failed

Indeed, the Russian siloviki have it going for them that they aren’t nauseatingly sanctimonious about their skullduggery–refreshingly cynical is more their style. James Comey and others cannot say the same.

And if you think the siloviki analogy is overwrought, consider the not-so-veiled threats expressed on the pages of the WaPo and NYT and by politicians and political pilot fish (e.g., Ben Rhodes) about how dangerous it is to confront the FBI.  Further proof that this rogue influence must be tamed.

Trump showed stones in confronting the FBI and the political class. But perhaps this just demonstrates that he has a strong survival instinct. He knows that he is in a knife fight for his political life–and perhaps his freedom and fortune–and it seems that he has decided that compromise is impossible so escalation is necessary.

This is not the end.  This is at most the end of a beginning. For the acknowledgement that the FBI and DOJ–and the Obama administration–used under false pretenses a dossier paid for by a political campaign and assembled by rabid partisans to obtain permission to spy on an American just raises other questions. Who other than Page was spied on? Were their names unmasked? What use was made of the information obtained from the Page surveillance? By whom?

Given the Herculean effort required to get the memo released, I doubt that these questions will be answered, and if they are answered, it will only happen in after a political brawl that makes the fight of the last few weeks look like childs’ play. The siloviki and their political handmaidens play rough, and play for keeps.


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