Questions are now swirling around the FBI’s use of confidential informants, spies if you will, who had slyly engaged Trump campaign aides about Russian collusion. What we know of the Russian investigation timeline suggest that DOJ documents about this are being withheld precisely because they may provide a sensational reversal of the conventional narrative.
The FBI and DOJ have settled on the story that the Russian interference counterintelligence investigation was officially begun on July 31, 2016, after Australian Ambassador Alexander Downer reported that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos had earlier relayed to Downer that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Viewed in this temporal context, the contemporaneous Steele dossier seems at first blush simply to be a corroborative report by what was thought to be a reliable ex-spy, Christopher Steele, smelling the same electoral plot that our own intelligence agencies had also been investigating. Given the seriousness of this emergent evidence, the DOJ claims, it was standard counterintelligence procedure to send in a “confidential informant,” Stefan Halper, to try to find out from Papadopoulos and Carter Page, as well as Trump’s campaign aide, Stephen Miller, what the Russians were doing. In this narrative, earlier investigative activity such as the trip to Europe of FBI Counterintelligence Chief Bill Priestap in May 2016 was simply “preliminary” to opening this formal investigation.
All of this sounds solidly standard, at least before we think critically of the timing of events. When we do, troubling questions arise, suggesting that, when the DOJ finally hands over documents, we may have troubling answers as well.
But before we proceed back in time to the true beginning of the inquiry, let’s focus a bit on the claim that the discovery of Papadopoulos-Downer conversation was the start of the counterintelligence investigation. First off, it seems that the comment of Papadopoulos was fairly innocuous: the Russians may have “dirt” on Hillary. Are we to truly believe this was the trigger for an investigation into treason? Or is it the only investigative pretext now remaining for DOJ to claim? Before Downer relayed the comment, Priestap was already hustling to Europe, but had no knowledge, even under the DOJ story, of Downer’s meeting with Papadopoulos. And spy Stefan Halper was already teed up to entrap Page before the late-July report of Downer’s discussion.
Please recall that in mid-March 2017, when James Comey first testified publicly to the “Russian collusion” investigation, the paper with a seeming pipeline into his camp, the New York Times, attributed the investigation to the Steele dossier, still widely thought to have delivered the real goods. On January 6, 2017, Comey briefed Trump on the dossier so that DNI James Clapper could leak its nature and existence to CNN, followed by BuzzFeed’s publication of the entire report. Comey did not tell Trump of the dossier’s partisan origins, likely because the Trump-hating triumvirate of Comey, James Clapper and John Brennan still intended to sell the dossier as solid intelligence. Indeed, they were certainly pitching the dossier as truthful when the FBI obtained in October 2016, the original FISA warrant to surveil the Trump campaign’s Carter Page.
So it appears that the tame Papadopoulos/Downer talk was claimed to be the investigation’s basis only after it became clear that the Steele dossier was rubbish, made to look like a real British spy had composed it rigorously, with its provenance hidden by running it through a prominent law firm, Perkins Coie. Even after the Clinton sponsorship was discovered, Comey and the Clinton camp asserted that the Russian research was begun by the Republican-connected Washington Beacon, which was not true.
Now that we can entertain that the claimed beginning of the Russian investigation, via Papadopoulos, was likely pretextual, and that the hoped-for basis was the later-discredited Steele dossier, we should now put certain well-known facts in a broader context of timing.
According to credible reports from The Guardian, corroborated by left-leaning Media Matters, the Russian inquiry began in December 2015, when CIA Director John Brennan received a tip from the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, that Putin was seeking to financially support Trump in the coming election. The implications were too exciting for the partisan CIA Director to ignore, quickly forming an “inter-agency” group. Will documents show this frenzied action was based on a phony tip?
We do know from recently emergent texts between the FBI’s Lisa Page and lover Peter Strzok that the FBI was engaged in the “inter-agency” group at least by December 28, 2015, and was already seeking to bring in “LUREs,” Fedspeak for spies or informants. One target, then, for future document production should also be the supposed basis for and results of this CIA-FBI collaboration, which would likely show that he agencies were shamefully suckered into this fiasco. If so, the CIA and FBI would look foolish, and so too would their confident conclusion that Putin’s interference was aimed at helping Trump win and Clinton lose. Can you say, like George Tenet, “slam dunk?”
Recall that in December 2015, Papadopoulos and Page were nowhere in sight, and so nothing those two gentlemen did or did not do can be tied to this investigation’s origins. Only after the March 21, 2016 Washington Post editorial board meeting did the names of these two pop up, likely to prop up the bona fides of Trump’s foreign policy team. That investigators leaped so enthusiastically on these two lowly aides suggests that they had nothing else, which DOJ documents should show.
So to cut through the clutter and concentrate on the real forces behind the Russian collusion claims, let us focus on the timeline as it pertains to one Sergei Millian, a Belarus-born Russian and American citizen claiming deep knowledge of Kremlin politics, while serving as Director of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, and also to Cambridge professor Joseph Mifsud.
In mid-March 2016, as soon as the London resident Papadopoulos was named as part of Trump’s team, he was immediately approached by Mifsud, who had known Russian connections (but is strongly suspected to be a GCHQ asset linked to the UK’s Claire Smith), who told the credulous twenty-seven-year-old of Russian-hacked Clinton campaign emails, and steered him ostentatiously to a Russian think tank official.
Yes, perhaps Mifsud was seriously recruiting Papadopoulos for Russian electoral collusion with Trump, seeking to use this nobody who knew no one. But common sense tells us that Mifsud was more likely trying to create a false impression of a Russian-Trump connection, where none had previously existed. Indeed, if Trump was already colluding for years with the Russians (as the Steele dossier was later to claim), there would be no need to approach Papadopoulos.
While Mifsud’s true sponsor and intent is admittedly murky, Millian’s is at least partially transparent as a ready source for GCHQ as to Russian matters, perhaps as well playing a double game. GCHQ, in turn, was working with Brennan’s CIA and after the formation of the “inter-agency” group, also the FBI. What action did Millian take, presumably on behalf of the GCHQ, the CIA’s partner?
First, we know from Papadopoulos’s girlfriend that at least by April 2016, Millian was all over Papadopoulos in an attempt to form a close bond. At the same time, Millian was publicly claiming, falsely as it appears, to have been a long-time Russian real estate agent for the Trump Organization. When Trump was elected, Millian bought expensive tickets to inaugural galas, open to anyone with a checkbook. So why all the efforts to claim, falsely, closeness with the Trump Organization and campaign? The answer comes shortly after his April 2016 efforts with Papadopoulos, when Millian readily acts as both “Source D” and “Source E” in the comically absurd Steele dossier. In it, while posing as an insider with the Trump campaign and Trump Organization, Millian readily tells Steele of the Trump-Russian electoral conspiracy, an odd confession by a Trump man to a Clinton researcher. In another part of the dossier, claiming Russian intelligence connections, he relates the pulp-fiction, peeing-prostitutes story.
Whatever Millian told GCHQ loyalist Steele would appear to be allegations designed to help not only Clinton but also the GCHQ/CIA/FBI. It is during Steele’s work that the FBI and CIA sent in their asset Stefan Halper, beginning in July 2016, to try to entrap Page, Papadopoulos and Miller. All of this trapping activity occurred in London, where the CIA has full operational (eavesdropping, bugging) leeway.
Viewed through the framework of this timeline, common sense says that partisan American intelligence (CIA, FBI), in league with its partner British intelligence (which may have seen Trump as weak on NATO), was trying to frame Trump, after coming up dry on the initial tip. Also present is the chilling possibility that the Russians orchestrated this through credulous political partisans within American intelligence.
But Russian intention is not the main area of present concern. What is frightening is not that America’s enemies might be undermining our country, but, rather that, using Millian, Halper, a cooperative GCHQ and other assets, our own CIA and FBI may have been trying to frame one political candidate to help another, at the same time weakening our country through division and discord.
Only full and complete DOJ document disclosure can resolve these troubling questions. If the DOJ persists in stonewalling on this existentially important investigation, the President should order full, minimally redacted disclosure so that the public can finally get answers.
John D. O’Connor is the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the co-author of “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington” and is a producer of “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017), written and directed by Peter Landesman.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.