Part 2 of a two-article analysis (Part 1 here).
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s fifth and final Russia report has been widely greeted as a vindication of the Russia intrigue that has gripped the nation since 2016.
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner says the report cataloged “a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections.”
The SSCI report, however, fails to show any coordinated activity between Trump, his campaign, and Russia.
A companion article by RealClearInvestigations, for example, reports that its bombshell allegation – that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort worked closely and shared information with a Russian intelligence officer – is based on innuendo rather than hard evidence.
A close reading of the report shows other instances where broad claims are made based on innocuous facts or heavily redacted material, making independent verification impossible.
As was the case with the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Senate document minimizes or entirely omits countervailing information that calls into question its explosive suppositions, while including testimony that does not hold up to scrutiny.
The Senate report also failed to document key facts because the committee did not interview important witnesses.
The report has been widely described as bipartisan, but it was not unanimous.
Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the lone senator to vote against the committee’s findings, claims the report relies heavily on speculation, not evidence.
“Yes, I disagree with the report’s ‘assessment,’ as there was no factual substantiation of it,” Risch said in a statement. “The report assumes much.”
A spokesperson for Risch declined further comment. Warner’s office did not respond to emailed questions about the panel’s work.
The Missing Mifsud 302
The FBI maintains that the years-long Trump-Russia probe was triggered by a single barroom conservation.
Over drinks in London in May 2016, a low-level Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos reportedly told an Australian diplomat that he had been tipped off that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Papadopoulos later told the FBI that the information came from a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud.
The Senate report, however, casts doubt on this origin story, only going so far as to say Papadopoulos “likely learned about the Russian active measures campaign as early as April 2016 from Joseph Mifsud.” (emphasis added.)
Nearly 500 pages later, contradicting itself, the report drops the qualifier: “The Committee found Mifsud was aware of an aspect of Russia’s active measures campaign in the 2016 election and that Mifsud told Papadopoulos what he knew.”
The Senate report contradicts the above passage by dropping the qualifier “likely” hundreds of pages later.
The report spends dozens of pages on Mifsud, yet adds no new information to support the suspicion that he had advance knowledge of a Russian interference plot.
Instead the report falls back on vague, equivocal language and insinuation.
It describes Papadopoulos’ interactions with Mifsud as “highly suspicious,” and claims that Mifsud “exhibited behavior consistent with intelligence tradecraft” while maintaining “significant ties to Russian government and business circles.”
As with its handling of Konstantin Kilimnik, another supposedly Russian agent, the report ignores Mifsud’s far more extensive public contacts with Western diplomats, including the FBI, CIA and State Department.
Mifsud’s U.S. government ties even brought him to Washington in February 2017, where he spoke at a State Department-sponsored conference.
Despite Mifsud’s allegedly central role in its investigation, the FBI held just one known interview with him, in a D.C. hotel lobby.
While the Senate report quotes extensively from the FBI’s interview summaries (known as 302s) of multiple Mueller witnesses, including Papadopoulos, it contains no visible reference to the FBI’s 302 on Mifsud (other references may be redacted).
Mifsud’s FBI 302, however, was publicly disclosed just days after the Senate report’s release.
The Mifsud 302 provides two pieces of evidence that raise new questions about the origins of Russiagate.
First, Mifsud denied having advance knowledge of Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton or offering help to Papadopoulos.
Second, and remarkably, the summary of this lone interview runs just two pages long and contains no indication of any follow-up questions by the interviewing agents.
By contrast, the FBI’s 302 of its January 2017 interview with Michael Flynn ran five pages and contained multiple follow-up questions about Flynn’s recollection of events.
In another curious contrast, while the Mueller team indicted Flynn for making false statements to the FBI, it never indicted Mifsud despite later claiming, in its final report, that he had committed the same offense.
Mifsud, the Mueller report claimed, falsely denied having two meetings with Papadopoulos in April 2016.
The Senate report gives no indication that it sought to answer the many unanswered questions regarding Mifsud’s identity and actions.
Assange: Another Missed Opportunity
The Senate report reveals a similar lack of investigative zeal regarding the other key episode that launched Russiagate: WikiLeaks’ release of stolen Democratic Party emails.
According to the FBI, Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat whom Papadopoulos supposedly spoke to in London, thought nothing of the conversation until weeks later in July 2016, when Julian Assange and WikiLeaks published the first tranche of stolen emails.
Downer suspected that Russia was using the website to publish the dirt Papadopoulos had mentioned.
The Senate committee states in its report simply that it “requested but did not obtain an interview with Julian Assange,” the WikiLeaks founder now fighting extradition from Britain to the U.S.
A source close to WikiLeaks told RealClearInvestigations that Assange’s U.S. legal team agreed to an interview but that the Senate committee never followed-up on his response.
Attorney Adam Waldman, who had served as an intermediary between Assange and the U.S. government, has claimed that the committee’s ranking Democrat, Warner, told him to cut off talks with Assange in April 2017.
According to Waldman, Warner was acting at the behest of then-FBI Director James Comey, who reportedly told the Virginia senator to “stand down.”
Comey has never commented on the incident.
The Senate report once again relies on speculative language, contending that WikiLeaks “likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort” when it obtained and released Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign.
It is unclear how the committee arrived at this conclusion.
What is clear is that, just like the Mueller team before it, the committee passed up an opportunity to seek answers from the WikiLeaks publisher himself.
Different Standards on Deripaska
Waldman’s contacts with Sen. Warner extended beyond the issue of Assange. They reveal more of the Senate report’s missed opportunities with key witnesses.
Waldman also spoke to Warner about securing the testimony of his client Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch best known for his association with Paul Manafort.
In 2017, after Deripaska’s name surfaced in media reports that tied him and Manafort to potential collusion, the aluminum tycoon took out newspapers ads offering to testify before Congress.
The Senate panel does not explain why it did not take up Deripaska’s offer.
Waldman has claimed that the committee lost interest after he relayed that his client would not testify about collusion because “he doesn’t know anything about that theory and actually doesn’t believe it occurred.”
Waldman also accused members of the Senate of masking their disinterest by leaking false claims that Deripaska had demanded immunity as a condition of appearance.
“Clearly, they did not want him to testify,” Waldman said.
The Committee’s approach to Deripaska also reveals more inconsistencies in how it scrutinizes Russian connections.
The committee accuses Deripaska of acting as “proxy” for the Kremlin and conducting “influence operations” on its behalf, and says that his associates’ proximity to Manafort constituted a “grave counterintelligence threat.”
Yet the committee adopts a very different tone when it comes to Deripaska’s other U.S. connections – most notably to the FBI and the Russia investigation.
In 2009, when Robert Mueller headed the FBI, Deripaska funded a secret effort to rescue a captured CIA operative, Robert Levinson, in Iran.
The Senate report mentions this in passing, and reduces it to “Deripaska’s alleged cooperation with the FBI.”
But the cooperation was so substantial that the FBI repaid the favor by securing a U.S. visa for Deripaska – a fact unmentioned in the report.
Also omitted is the fact that the FBI even tried to recruit Deripaska as an informant starting in 2014.
The effort was abandoned two years later after the Russian tycoon informed agents that he had nothing to offer on Trump-Russia collusion, a theory he found “preposterous.”
While Deripaska did not become an FBI source, he employed a key figure who did.
The committee states that it found “multiple links” between Deripaska and Christopher Steele, the former British spy whose discredited Trump-Russia dossier was used for FBI surveillance applications and investigative leads.
The report found that Steele worked for Deripaska from at least 2012 to 2017, including for an attempt to recover money from Paul Manafort.
The report also quietly mentions that several people behind the dissemination of the Steele dossier have Deripaska ties.
In a footnote, the committee recounts testimony from former John McCain aide David Kramer that Glenn Simpson — co-founder of Fusion GPS, the DNC contractor that hired Steele — worked for Deripaska.
Simpson downplayed this connection, a “discrepancy” that the committee says it did not resolve. (Kramer, was also a key figure in publicizing the dossier, leaking it to Buzzfeed and other media outlets).
Simpson also refused to answer the Senate panel’s additional questions about Steele’s work for Deripaska.
Also relegated to a footnote is the fact that Jonathan Winer, a State Department official who also used his position to spread the Steele dossier, acknowledged that he is a former Deripaska employee as well.
The committee acknowledges that the Deripaska-Steele connection may have provided a “direct channel for Russian influence” on the dossier, and accordingly the FBI investigation that used it.
Yet despite this risk, the committee does not conclude that Deripaska’s proximity to the dossier’s author, not to mention several key individuals who disseminated it, amounts to a grave counterintelligence threat.
‘Authentic, Non-Public Knowledge’
A key component of the Trump/Russia conspiracy theory was that the Trump campaign conspired with, or had privileged information about, WikiLeaks’ email releases.
Like the Mueller team before it, the Senate committee fans the flames of this explosive claim in the dozens of pages it devotes to the actions of the veteran GOP operative Roger Stone.
In June and October 2016, the Senate report says, Stone “likely” shared “additional information about WikiLeaks directly with Trump,” and the two “likely spoke about WikiLeaks.”
But the Senate committee also acknowledges that it “could not reliably determine the extent of authentic, non-public knowledge about WikiLeaks that Stone obtained and shared with the Campaign.”
That is because, as the Mueller investigation made clear, Stone never obtained any non-public knowledge about WikiLeaks.
His two suspected intermediaries, Jerome Corsi and Randy Credico, had no actual contact with WikiLeaks, and accordingly had no information to share.
Nonetheless, the Senate report goes to great lengths to suggest that WikiLeaks’ Oct. 7, 2016 release of emails stolen from Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, was coordinated with Stone and Corsi in order to blunt the impact of the so-called “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump made extremely coarse comments about women.
While it pores over Corsi’s statements and recounts in granular detail his communications with Stone, the Senate report ignores countervailing, open source information that undermines the innuendo.
Stefania Maurizi, an Italian journalist who worked with WikiLeaks on the Podesta release, has recounted that the timing of the Podesta publication was decided the day before its release.
Maurizi confirmed to RealClearInvestigations that she was not invited to testify.
‘How’s Things Going With Russia?’
The Senate report’s section on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen reveals a willingness to include false information that fuels the Russiagate narrative.
A popular theory – advanced most recently by former FBI agent Peter Strzok — contends that Trump is beholden to Russia financially, and thus subject to compromise.
Chief among Trump’s supposed financial entanglements with Moscow is his aborted effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
The Senate report repeatedly cites this project but never reveals anything beyond what was already known: The effort was entirely prospective, and never advanced beyond a non-binding letter of intent as well as — in Cohen’s angry words to a colleague — “a bullshit garbage invite” to Russia “by some no name clerk at a third-tier bank.”
As Cohen told MSNBC earlier this month: “There was never discussion with anybody about the financing of this project. There was never a piece of property to put it on.”
Nevertheless, the report includes Cohen’s implausible testimony describing the campaign period up until June 2016, when the Trump Tower Moscow project was abandoned for good. Cohen told the committee:
In other words, Mr. Trump is out there on the rally, in the public, stating there’s no Russian collusion, there’s no involvement, there’s no deals, there’s no connection. And yet, the following day, as we’re walking to his car, he’s asking me, “How’s things going with Russia?”
It is certainly true that Trump did not disclose the Trump Tower Moscow project on the campaign trail.
But the public record is clear that it would have been impossible for Trump to claim “no Russian collusion” in public while simultaneously asking about Trump Tower Moscow in private.
Up until June 2016, Trump’s dealings with Russia were barely a public issue, and “collusion” was not one at all. Collusion would only arise publicly many months later, after the 2016 election, making Cohen’s account untenable.
Cohen made similarly false statements to the House Intelligence Committee in early 2019.
Yet, despite being indicted for false statements to Congress that the Mueller team claimed were aimed at protecting Trump, he has faced no scrutiny or charges for statements that fueled the narrative of Trump’s illicit Russian ties.
New Questions for CrowdStrike
Instead of providing clarity, the Senate report creates new confusion regarding a central question: Did the Russians actually steal Democratic Party emails by hacking into the DNC servers?
The FBI never directly examined the servers that housed the purloined emails. Jim Comey said he made “multiple requests” to the DNC for the servers but was rebuffed.
It is not clear why he took no for answer.
As a result, the bureau – as well as Mueller and the Senate committee – relied heavily on a forensic analysis performed by a DNC contractor, CrowdStrike.
The report recounts that during his interview with the committee, CrowdStrike President Shawn Henry said his firm had found evidence of Russian hacking. It states:
Henry testified that CrowdStrike was “able to see some exfiltration and the types of files that had been touched” but not the content of those files.
Henry’s claim that Crowdstrike was “able to see some exfiltration” is at odds with his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in December 2017.
As RealClearInvestigations has previously reported, Henry testified then that CrowdStrike “did not have concrete evidence” that Russian hackers exfiltrated data from the DNC servers.
“There’s circumstantial evidence, but no evidence that they were actually exfiltrated,” he told the House panel.
“There are times when we can see data exfiltrated, and we can say conclusively. But in this case, it appears it was set up to be exfiltrated, but we just don’t have the evidence that says it actually left.”
Asked by RCI to explain the discrepancy, a CrowdStrike representative referred RealClearInvestigation to the firm’s blog post in response to the release of his House testimony.
“Shawn Henry stated in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that CrowdStrike had indicators of exfiltration and that data had clearly left the network,” the post says.
The SSCI also draws heavily on CrowdStrike’s analysis of the DNC server in reports that have never been publicly released.
Justice Department officials have previously disclosed that CrowdStrike’s reports were delivered in draft form, and redacted by DNC attorneys.
Both CrowdStrike and the DNC claim to have fully cooperated with the FBI, but the Senate report tells a different story.
On Aug. 31, 2016, as the FBI’s investigation of the DNC server breach was in full swing, CrowdStrike delivered a draft report that an unidentified FBI official described as “heavily redacted.”
James Trainor, then-assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, told the SSCI that he was “frustrated” with the CrowdStrike report and “doubted its completeness.”
Although the committee claims that the FBI ultimately obtained the data it sought, Trainor testified that the DNC’s cooperation was “moderate” overall and “slow and laborious in many respects.”
Trainor singled out the fact that Perkins Coie, the DNC law firm that hired CrowdStrike (as well as Fusion GPS, the firm behind the Steele dossier), “scrubbed” the CrowdStrike information before it was delivered to the FBI:
As Trainor told the Committee: “having that information [raw data about the computer intrusion] collected, fully viewed by an attorney, scrubbed, sent over to the FBI in a stripped-down version three weeks later is not optimal.”
From an investigatory point of view, it is also not optimal that the two core allegations at the heart of Russiagate – the alleged Russian theft of Democratic Party emails and the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with the Kremlin – were generated by Democratic Party contractors, CrowdStrike and Fusion GPS.
Yet despite criticizing the FBI for failing to properly vet Christopher Steele, the SSCI report does not take issue with the outsized role and partisan conflicts of these two private firms.
‘The Power to Investigate’
Although the Senate report has been widely interpreted as a bipartisan endorsement of the Trump-Russia collusion theory, that picture is misleading.
Six Republican members state unequivocally in an addendum that the investigation “found no evidence” that the Trump campaign “colluded with the Russian government” in 2016.
In early 2019, as the investigation neared its end, a Democratic aide on the committee acknowledged to CNN that it had “not uncovered direct evidence of collusion.”
The Senate committee itself has also had a direct role in the selective leaks that fueled the collusion narrative.
In 2018, James Wolfe — the SSCI’s longtime director of security – was convicted of lying to the FBI about his contacts with journalists about classified information before the committee.
Wolfe had a romantic relationship with one of those reporters, Ali Watkins, now at the New York Times, who wrote a story for BuzzFeed about Carter Page’s contacts with alleged Russian spies.
In what is perhaps a nod to the fact that its final report is heavy on speculation and light on new evidence, the SSCI opens the nearly 1,000-page document with the disclaimer that it “does not describe the final result as a complete picture.”
In an addendum, five of the committee’s Democratic members note that the panel’s “power to investigate — which does not include search warrants or wiretaps — falls short of the FBI’s. So too do its staffing, resources, and technical capabilities.”
As a result, far from being treated as a breakthrough in the years-long Trump-Russia saga, the SSCI’s main contribution to the available picture is its own creative interpretation of previously known information.
Its release comes while another major investigation with far greater investigative powers is believed to be near completion.
The review by U.S. Attorney John Durham into the origins of the Russia probe recently yielded its first indictment.
Whether more are forthcoming or not, the innuendo that fills the Senate intelligence panel’s last word on the Russia investigation underscores that the full story has yet to be told.
By Aaron Mate for RealClearInvestigations. Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.