The Latest Viral Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory

As Robert Mueller builds his case and moves closer and closer to the inner circle around President Trump, I suppose it’s inevitable that a political defense will be organized and launched. One component of that defense is to discredit not only Mueller, but the entire intelligence community, including especially the FBI. Heading up that effort today is Byron York, who is riffing off a “scoop” obtained in recent days by James Rosen and Jake Gibson of Fox News. On the merits, this is not much of a news story at all, but it will go viral and become as integral to the right’s belief system as the fact that Hillary Clinton engaged in a cover up of the Benghazi attacks.

Briefly, the revelation is that a man named Bruce Ohr who was serving as the associate deputy attorney general has just been demoted, and the supposed cause of this demotion is that he had personal contact with Christopher Steele, the British ex-MI6 officer who authored the infamous dossier on Donald Trump. These contacts happened during the election, but Ohr also met around Thanksgiving of last year with Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, who had hired Steele to investigate Trump’s Russian connections. It’s not clear to me why this should be scandalous in the least, but it is supposed to confirm a conspiracy theory that the only reason that the intelligence community launched a counterespionage and counterintelligence investigation of Trump is because of this so-called fake or dodgy dossier, and that the whole thing was coordinated with Obama’s Department of Justice from the beginning.

In response, let me begin with something basic. All the way back in April The Guardian reported on how the American intelligence community became interested in the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. For a while, the answer actually served as fodder for a different conspiracy angle when Sean Spicer accused Britain’s version of the National Security Agency of bugging Trump Tower.

GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information, they added.

Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, sources said.

The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence – known as sigint – included Germany, Estonia and Poland. Australia, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance that also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also relayed material, one source said.

Another source suggested the Dutch and the French spy agency, the General Directorate for External Security or DGSE, were contributors.

So, from late 2015 until the early summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence officials received alarming reports of contacts between Trump associate and Russian intelligence officers and assets. These reports came from the intelligence services of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Estonia and Poland.

Let me add one other juicy tidbit to this before I move on:

According to one account, GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, passed material in summer 2016 to the CIA chief, John Brennan. The matter was deemed so sensitive it was handled at “director level”. After an initially slow start, Brennan used GCHQ information and intelligence from other partners to launch a major inter-agency investigation.

Now, ask yourself, who has more credibility? An ex-MI6 officer working under contract to do opposition research for Fusion GPS or the intelligence services of seven of our closest allies? Who had more influence, Christopher Steele or Robert Hannigan, the then-head of GCHQ?

Another problem with this “scoop” that York is pimping is that it really isn’t revelatory at all. Back in March, Howard Blum of Vanity Fair published a piece that explained how Steele put his dossier together and what he did with it. Blum reported that Steele had a preexisting relationship with the F.B.I.’s Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Squad dating back to when he was an active MI6 officer. Together they had exposed corruption at FIFA, the world’s governing soccer organization. He discovered in early August that one of the agents he knew from the Eurasian Squad was currently stationed in Rome, and he paid him a visit and shared what he had discovered in his research.

This man could not have been Bruce Ohr, although he certainly would have known him since Ohr served as the chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Criminal Division before he rose to Deputy Assistant Attorney General. The chances are good that the man in Rome put Steele in touch with Ohr, and the chances are also good that the two men were already acquainted with each other.

We already knew something like this happened. On October 31st, 2016, David Corn reported in Mother Jones that A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump. Here’s the relevant part:

“It started off as a fairly general inquiry,” says [Christopher Steele] the former spook, who asks not to be identified. But when he dug into Trump, he notes, he came across troubling information indicating connections between Trump and the Russian government. According to his sources, he says, “there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.”

This was, the former spy remarks, “an extraordinary situation.” He regularly consults with US government agencies on Russian matters, and near the start of July on his own initiative—without the permission of the US company that hired him—he sent a report he had written for that firm to a contact at the FBI, according to the former intelligence officer and his American associates, who asked not to be identified. (He declines to identify the FBI contact.) The former spy says he concluded that the information he had collected on Trump was “sufficiently serious” to share with the FBI.

And what happened then?

The former intelligence officer says the response from the FBI was “shock and horror.” The FBI, after receiving the first memo, did not immediately request additional material, according to the former intelligence officer and his American associates. Yet in August, they say, the FBI asked him for all information in his possession and for him to explain how the material had been gathered and to identify his sources. The former spy forwarded to the bureau several memos—some of which referred to members of Trump’s inner circle. After that point, he continued to share information with the FBI. “It’s quite clear there was or is a pretty substantial inquiry going on,” he says.

So, even before the election was over, we knew that Steele had shared his dossier with a contact at the FBI and that there was a short delay before higher ups asked for a his source material and that he continued to cooperate with them.

Why, then, did he go to David Corn at the beginning of October? Howard Blum explains:

His duty done, Steele waited with anxious anticipation for the official consequences.

There were none. Or at least not any public signs that the F.B.I. was tracking down the ripe leads he’d offered. And in the weeks that followed, as summer turned into fall and the election drew closer, Steele’s own sense of the mounting necessity of his mission must have intensified.

As [Steele’s] frustration grew, the mysterious trickle from WikiLeaks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s purloined e-mails were continuing in a deliberate, steadily ominous flow. He had little doubt the Kremlin was behind the hacking, and he had shared his evidence with the F.B.I., but as best he could tell, the bureau was focusing on solving the legalistic national-security puzzle surrounding Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. With so much hanging in the balance—the potential president of the United States possibly being under Russia’s thumb—why weren’t the authorities more concerned? He decided it was time for desperate measures.

“Someone like me stays in the shadows,” Steele would say, as if apologizing for what he did next. It was an action that went against all his training, all his professional instincts. Spies, after all, keep secrets; they don’t disclose them. And now that the F.B.I. had apparently let him down, there was another restraint tugging on his resolve: he didn’t know whom he could trust. It was as if he were back operating in the long shadow of the Kremlin, living by what the professionals call “Moscow Rules,” where security and vigilance are constant occupational obsessions. But when he considered what was at stake, he knew he had no choice. With Simpson now on board, in effect, as co-conspirator and a shrewd facilitator, Steele met with a reporter.

In early October, on a trip to New York, Steele sat down with David Corn, the 58-year-old Washington-bureau chief of Mother Jones.

From Steele’s perspective, his efforts to reach out to the FBI had been fruitless. In truth, the were valuable, but they didn’t cause or initiate the counterintelligence investigation, nor did they cause the FBI to put their thumb on the scale against Trump during the election. In the end, the director of the FBI put his thumb on the scale against Hillary Clinton.

Of course, Steele was vindicated in thinking “the Kremlin was behind the hacking” and we’re all still wondering if Trump is “possibly under Russia’s thumb.”

So, what does Byron York really have here? How does this rebut the case that Mueller is building?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. York’s pushing a story that will be believed on the right as if it’s the Lord’s gospel.

But it’s not a real story. It’s all bullshit.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.