The Russian Involvement Explained by Putin via Edward Jay Epstein

There has been considerable discussion about Russian involvement in the 2016 election with the suggestion that he favored one candidate over another. As it turns out, Putin only wished to delegitimize the election itself and damage our democracy in the process.



A Question of Motive

Russia wasn’t trying to elect a particular candidate: Vladimir Putin wanted to delegitimize our elections, above all.

July 31, 2017

Politics and law

The 2016 presidential campaign was marked by three disclosure operations, all of which appear to have had a single author. “Oppo research” is the euphemism commonly used in elections for such operations. The mechanism is fairly simple: dirt is obtained from wherever it can be found to discredit an opponent. It is then “leaked,” usually either anonymously or on background, to targeted media channels. What makes the 2016 campaign particularly interesting from a counterintelligence perspective is not that both sides had their own disclosure operations, but that both sides were offered the dirt for them by a common source: Russian intelligence.

As we now know from the emails of Donald Trump Jr., a thinly veiled intermediary, Natalya Veselnitskaya, offered the Trump campaign documents that putatively would show that Hillary Clinton had received illegal donations from Russian financiers; in the event, no such documents were proffered. But it is a reasonable assumption that Veselnitskaya could not have made such an offer, especially in a meeting attended by three other Russians, unless the move was approved by the FSB, the Russian security service.

A second disclosure operation, this one involving supporters of the Clinton campaign, was more layered. The proximate intermediary was Fusion GPS, a research firm used by the law firm Baker Hostetler, and the secondary “cut-out” was the British firm Orbis, co-founded by former MI-6 officer Christopher Steele. We know something about this sub-contractor from the depositions Steele gave in defending a libel suit in London. According to Steele, Fusion GPS not only had him prepare the so-called “dossier” on Trump but also directed Steele to “leak” it to specified reporters at Mother Jones, Yahoo, the New York Times, the Washington PostThe New Yorker, and CNN. In some cases, Steele was directed to brief the selected journalists personally. The dirt in these “leaks” relied heavily on information supplied by two Russian government sources: Source A, whom Steele calls “a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure”; and Source B, “a former top-level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin.” Sources A and B provided information supposedly exposing a long-time Russian FSB operation to get compromising information that could be used to control Trump. The idea that two Russian intelligence sources would reveal a long-time Kremlin-backed FSB operation bears further examination.

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director, casts light on the sourcing of the dirt in the Steele dossier. “I had two questions when I first read [the dossier],” Morell said in an NBC interview. “One was, how did Chris [Steele] talk to these sources? I have subsequently learned that he used intermediaries. I asked myself, why did these guys provide this information, what was their motivation? And I subsequently learned that he paid them. That the intermediaries paid the sources and the intermediaries got the money from Chris.”

Paying ex-FSB officers for sensitive information? As Steele is no doubt aware, there is no such thing as an ex-FSB officer. All Russian intelligence officers, whether currently or formerly employed, if in Russia, operate under the same tough security regime. The selling of secret information by them is espionage, pure and simple. Selling it to someone connected to an adversary intelligence service greatly compounds the crime. Sources A and B (through their intermediaries) knew that they were dealing with an ex-MI-6 man who could use their betrayal of secrets against them. The only safe way for A and B to provide the requested dirt would be to clear it with the security regime at the FSB. This precaution, a required step in such exchanges, would mean that the dirt in the dossier, whether true or false, was curated by the FSB and spoon-fed to Steele. If so, the FSB was the surreptitious provider of this part of the Steele dossier.

The third disclosure operation involved stolen emails from the DNC bearing on the unfair treatment by Democratic Party officials of Bernie Sanders, which were posted on the DC Leaks website. President Obama identified the Kremlin as the author of this operation, saying “These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government.” If so, as in the previous cases, the FSB would have curated the dirt. To be sure, oppo-research operatives, because of their singular focus on getting usable slime, are highly vulnerable to shady offers, but why would Russia so blatantly feed the slime to all sides in a campaign?

The United States has a wide array of tools for monitoring Russian intelligence, including the world’s most sophisticated sensors for intercepting signals, but discovering the Kremlin’s motives remains an elusive enterprise because, unlike in a scientific inquiry, one cannot fully trust the observable data. While a scientist can safely assume that the microbes he observes through the lens of a microscope are not employing guile to mislead him, an intelligence analyst cannot make similar assumptions about the content of intercepted communications from Russia. If one assumes that the Russians do not know that the channel is being monitored—an assumption which, following the defection of Edward Snowden to Russia, is hard to make prudently—then the intelligence gleaned from that channel can reveal the Kremlin’s activities and motive. If, however, it is understood that the Russians know that a channel is being monitored, the information conveyed over it can be considered a disclosure operation.

If, for example, a Mafia family finds out that the FBI is tapping its telephone lines, it can use those lines to burn its rivals. The Kremlin can also use a knowntapped phone line to its advantage. Consider, for example, the tapped phone of Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. On December 1, 2016, Kislyak went to Trump Tower to meet Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn. According to Kushner’s version of that meeting, Kislyak suggested that Russian generals could supply information about Russian military operations in Syria on the condition that the Trump transition team provide a “secure line in the transition office.” Of course, as Kislyak likely knew, transition teams don’t have secure lines to Moscow. Kushner responded by asking if the Russian embassy could supply such a “secure line.” Kislyak then used an open phone line at his embassy to relay Kushner’s response to his foreign ministry in Moscow. It is inconceivable that Kislyak did not know that the call would be monitored by the FBI, since the FBI had routinely listened in on these lines for the past 68 years, or that his discussion of Kushner’s request would set off alarm bells in the intelligence community.

If Kislyak had wanted to hide this exchange from U.S. intelligence, he could have easily sent it under diplomatic cover directly to Moscow, used a secure line, or relayed it in a coded fashion. By communicating the message en clair, or in plaintext, Kislyak skillfully exposed Kushner’s incredibly stupid response, which he himself had provoked, to stoke distrust about the incoming president within the U.S. intelligence community. Nor was this the only mistrust Kislyak cultivated: the conversations on the monitored phone led to the firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and conversations that Kislyak had with Attorney General Jeff Sessions led to Sessions’s recusing himself from the Russian investigation, which has now driven a wedge between President Trump and one of his most effective and popular cabinet members.

Kislyak’s resume indicates that he is a well-regarded and competent player in the game of nations: he has served as Second Secretary of the Soviet UN mission in New York, First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Deputy Director of the Soviet Department of International Organizations in Moscow, Permanent Russian representative to NATO in Brussels, Deputy Foreign Minister, and Ambassador to the United States. Nothing in his 37-year career, either during or after the Cold War, suggests that his moves are not aligned with Kremlin strategy.

But when it comes to the various disclosures and interventions surrounding the 2016 election, what exactly was that strategy?

In a report issued on January 6, 2017, entitled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” the U.S. intelligence community concluded, based both on its sources and its analysis of stories on the Russian-controlled network RT, that Putin wanted to hurt Clinton, help Trump, and discredit the American election. These may well have been motives of the Russian president, but the narrowly focused assessment fails to explain, or even take into account, Kislyak’s post-election ensnarement of Kushner, or the discrediting dirt against Trump. If Putin had really wanted to help Trump win the election, why did Russian sources provide damaging dirt to Steele, which could have cost Trump the election? Why did Kislyak provide the FBI with information, via a known tapped line, that could (and did) compromise key members of Trump’s administration?

A wider focus can be found, of all places, in Oliver Stone’s revealing, if fawning, four-hour interview with Putin, in which the Russian dictator makes clear that he views American hegemony, including America’s standing and respect in the international community, as a threat that Russia must counter. One way to undermine America’s standing is to provide disclosures that can be used by its own political factions, and the media, to sow distrust in America’s reliability as a democracy founded on transparency. Putin tells the truth when he says that it doesn’t matter particularly to Russia whether Clinton or Trump won the election: his goal was to install doubt in the legitimacy of the process, regardless of how it turned out.

Belmont Club » The Day Obama’s Presidency Died

This article contains the best analysis of the Benghazi fiasco and places it in historical perspective. It also links contemporary events to Benghazi and describes the impact on the Obama administration. This is a must read article.

The Real Effect of the Syrian Matter

The recent threat of military action against Assad’s Syrian forces because of the use of chemical weapons to kill 1,429 Syrian civilians raises more questions. The questions are why at this time, what was the result sought, how was that to be accomplished, and what is the effect on the US?

The first question is the one I find most disturbing. In the Syrian civil war, over 110,000 deaths have occured.  Prior to the use of chemical weapons, there was a lot of talk, but no threats of military action, so  why is the death of the 1,429 due to gas the trigger for Tomahawk missles? 

My first thought is that Obama realy did think differently over the use of gas. His “redline” reflected this feeling. He finds this particularly horrific, but how about the dead 110,000, isn’t this also horrific? (A friend suggested to me that if Obama thought killings by gun fire were horrific, he would bomb Chicago, but that’s a separate issue.)  I have a dislike for gas, as you can’t avoid it and the death is particularly painful. The President’s “redline” comment may have been a reaction to this same fear. So the answer to the question, Why at this time?, is that the President reacted visceraly to the use of gas and the photos of dead children. He shouldn’t have done so, but he did.

That raises the next question, What was the result sought?  It seems this was never figrured out at the White House or Foggy Bottom (State Department).  Launching cruise missles from destroyers does not change nations as the impact is, as John Kerry pointed out and Bill Clinton found out, incredibly small.   A Predator drone strike on Assad’s home would have sent a different, but more precise message. Furthermore, Obama said his goal was not regime change. So what was it? Was he trying to degrade the Syrian military so that the al Queda led opposition could prevail? I guess not as that is regime change. 

What has been the effect of this event? First, we have alllowed the clever Vladimir Putin to emerge as the alpha male in the Mid East and that is a major change. We want the US President to be the alpha, but American influence there and in the world, is vastly diminished. If the
President can threaten Assad cver his use of chemical weapons, be faced down by the Russians, and have his action rejected by the Congress, he has no power anywhere. This is a major threat to US influence and our world position. Obama said he would fundamentaly change the US, and he has done so.
Does this now mean that any leader, say in Venezuela, can use chemical weapons, and fear naught from the US? I think that is the outcome of this matter. The President conducts foreigh policy, but now that is subject to Russian approval and congressional agreement. A significant degrading of his regime.

What is the danger from this degraded position? A President will attempt to restore his luster and to do so, he must take action somewhere. His instinct ante is to not do anything that’s why he did not send aircraft to protect our Ambassador in Benghazi. His visceral reaction to the gassed kids in Syria put him in an image protection mode that was dashed on the rocks. He will think of something and that is problematic. He has already threatened the Iranian government, for example. There is also the domestic consideration that rattling sabers in the Middle East distracts from the real domestic problems we have to deal with.  That may be the major focus for Obama, who is first a domestic politician facing a congressional election in just over a year.

The Syrian threat is now over and Assad has prevailed and has empowered his Russian ally.  This story will end with the end of the Syrian Civll War but the effect on our Presidency will linger for a long time. Even our al Queda allies in Syria have voiced displeasure with Obama, and that is  something I never thought I would write.