On Stefan Halper and Carter Page

Chuck Ross of The Daily Caller has been the point man in the conservative media for exposing former Washington Monthly book reviewer Stefan Halper as a confidential FBI source. He has collected or received the information about Halper and then transformed it into a narrative form for right-wing audiences. Much of his information has been reported accurately, and he can take credit for breaking a story that is now significant enough that the president of the United States is calling it #SpyGate.

The implication of this reporting is that the FBI did something partisan, potentially illegal, and wholly unjustified in consulting with Mr. Halper. To begin with, Mr. Halper made contact with Carter Page and maintained a relationship with him for over a year— from July 2016 to September 2017.

On July 7th and 8th, 2016, Carter Page was in Moscow to give a speech critical of U.S. foreign policy at the New Economic School. By his own admission in sworn congressional testimony, on this trip he met with and discussed business deals and sanctions relief with Andrei Baranov, the head of investor relations at Rosneft, a gigantic state-run Russian energy company. Despite intelligence reports to the contrary, Page denied under oath that he also met with Baranov’s boss Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft who was under sanction at the time, or discussed business deals and sanctions relief with him as alleged in the Steele Dossier. If Steele got the Rosneft contact wrong, he certainly got the main thrust of the problem right. How did he know that Page was meeting with a Rosneft representative and what they discussed if his sources were not well placed?

Under oath, Page denied Christopher Steele’s allegation that he met with Igor Diveykin, who was then serving as the Kremlin’s Deputy Chief for Internal Policy. U.S. intelligence believes Diveykin was at that time in charge of “intelligence collected by Russian agencies about the U.S. election.” According to Steele, Diveykin informed Page that “the Kremlin had a dossier of kompromat on [Hillary] Clinton that it wanted to give the Trump campaign.” Page also downplayed his interaction with Russia’s deputy prime minister Arkadiy Dvorkovich, saying that their conversation lasted no more than ten seconds. He characterized his meetings with Duma representatives as perfunctory— shaking hands, making pleasantries. But Page certainly sent a different message to the Trump campaign at the time.

The transcript [of Page’s congressional testimony] shows that Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff confronted Page with an email he wrote on July 8, 2016, from Moscow to the Trump campaign adviser J.D. Gordon, saying he had received “incredible insights and outreach … from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the presidential administration here.”

After Page finished up in Moscow, he traveled on to Cambridge to an election-themed symposium at the university. Mr. Halper made his initial contact with Page on July 11th.

The conversation seemed innocent enough, Page tells The Daily Caller News Foundation. He recalls nothing of substance being discussed other than Halper’s passing mention that he knew then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

U.S. intelligence agencies certainly noticed Page’s critical remarks at the New Economic School, especially considering that they were widely reported in the news at the time. So, while they didn’t successfully obtain a FISA warrant to monitor Page’s activities until October 21st, 2016, it is not surprising that they might have tasked Halper with making contact with Page when they learned that Page would be appearing at Cambridge.

To really consider whether this was appropriate we need to know something else. Carter Page had been under FISA surveillance previously, after he was the subject of a recruitment effort by SVR spies in 2013. He had turned over documents to one of these spies, although there is no indication that the materials were classified. The FBI noticed because they were surveilling a Russian spy ring at the time. When they contacted Page in June 2013 and warned him that he was being recruited, he responded with annoyance and told the counterintelligence officers that they should spend their time investigating the Boston Marathon bombing rather than his Russian friend. In fact, he was so unconcerned about the Russians and about the FBI that he began boasting about his Kremlin connections.

Former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page bragged that he was an adviser to the Kremlin in a letter obtained by TIME that raises new questions about the extent of Page’s contacts with the Russian government over the years.

The letter, dated Aug. 25, 2013, was sent by Page to an academic press during a dispute over edits to an unpublished manuscript he had submitted for publication, according to an editor who worked with Page.

“Over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month, where energy issues will be a prominent point on the agenda,” the letter reads.

This letter was only unearthed much later, but it speaks to Page’s state of mind at the time and also raises questions about whether he had already been recruited when he was warned by counterintelligence officials.

The following is an excerpt of a conversation about Carter Page that was captured by the FBI in 2013 and presented in court in 2015.

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

VP: Victor Podobnyy, SVR Agent, working as Russian Attaché of the Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York City

IS: Igor Sporyshev, SVR Agent, working as Trade Representative of the Russian Federation in New York City

[MALE-1]: Carter Page, energy consultant teaching a class at New York University.

Date of conversation: April 8th, 2013

When looking at how Victor Podobnyy assessed Carter Page at the time it’s important to see the parallels to what was alleged to have happened in Moscow three years later. Podobnyy made promises of business opportunities with a Russian energy company (in that case it was Gazprom rather than Rosneft) with the intention of stringing Page along so that he could get information out of him. Once the information was secured, he would renege on his promises and tell Page to “go fuck himself.” To make him feel better, he would take him out for dinner and give him an expensive gift, but he would make Page sign for the gift in order to assure that he was compromised and could be used for other operations in the future.

It does seem like Page was an easy mark (“it’s obvious that he wants to make a lot of money”), especially when you consider how easy it was for Halper to befriend him, even succeeding in getting him to visit his vacation home in Virginia.  The Steele Dossier alleges that Page was approached during his July 2016 trip to Moscow with a pitch for a nineteen percent commission on the sale of Rosneft stock contingent on a lifting of sanctions. As mentioned above, Page has acknowledged having discussions with Rosneft’s head of investor relations during his July 2016 Moscow trip, and he has admitted that the discussions involved sanctions.

Setting aside whether Page was a witting recruit, a naive dupe, or some strange hybrid of both, the FBI’s counterintelligence team had plenty of reasons to want to better understand Carter Page once he landed a position as one of a small handful of foreign policy advisers to the Republican Party’s nominee for president. In ordinary circumstances, they would be performing this service on behalf of not only the country but the Trump campaign which would presumably want to know if they had inadvertently invited a Russian agent into their camp.

But these were not ordinary circumstances. Just prior to Page’s early July trip to Moscow, the following things happened:

    • 6/12/16 Assange announced he had documents relating to Clinton that would be “enough evidence” to indict her.
    • 6/14/16 The Washington Post reported that the DNC was hacked by Russians
    • 6/14/16 The DNC made a public announcement that it had been hacked
    • 6/14/16 Rob Goldstone forwarded a CNN story on Russia’s hacking to Emin Agalarov and Ike Kaveladze describing the news as “eerily weird” in light of the conversation they’d had the week before at Trump Tower.
    • 6/15/16 Russian composite character Guccifer 2.0 appeared, contacting The Smoking Gun and pretending to be Romanian.
    • 6/15/16 Cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike released a detailed statement about Russian hacking of the DNC.
    • 6/15/16 House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Paul Ryan and others that “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.”
    • 6/15/16 Trump’s team issued a statement claiming the DNC hacked itself
    • 6/16/16 WikiLeaks uploaded the torrent containing their insurance file of the DNC hacks to their website.
    • 6/17/16 Roger Stone’s backchannel contact with Assange, Randy Credico tweeted “Assange to drop coup de gras hammer on career criminal clinton!”
    • 6/17/16 The United States expelled two Russian diplomats in retaliation for an attack on an American diplomat in Moscow.
    • 6/17/16 WikiLeaks publicly released their insurance file of the DNC hacks and asked people to upload it.
    • 6/19/16 George Papadopolous offered the campaign to make an “off the record” trip to Russia
    • 6/20/16 Corey Lewandowski was fired and Paul Manafort is placed firmly in charge of the Trump campaign.
    • 6/20/16 Date of the first Christopher Steele memo in dossier, asserting Kremlin had been helping Trump for at least 5 years.
    • 6/20/16 Guccifer 2.0 first appeared on Twitter, falsely restated that the “DNC’s servers hacked by a lone hacker” and released the DNC’s oppo on Trump to divert suspicion of partisan motivation.
    • 6/21/16 The Guccifer 2.0 interview with Vice News was published. Outed as NOT Romanian
    • 6/21/16 Guccifer 2.0 posted documents stolen from the DNC on Clinton’s vulnerabilities as well as potential responses to lines of attack.
    • 6/22/16 WikiLeaks published the first in a series of hacked emails taken from the DNC.

The FBI was certainly not aware of everything on this list at the time, but they knew that an American diplomat had been attacked on the street in Moscow. They knew that the Russians had hacked into the DNC computers and that both Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks were publishing material intended to do damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  They knew that Paul Manafort, who had many suspicious ties to Russia, had just been elevated to the top of the Trump campaign. (It should be noted here that Trump fired Manafort six weeks later for his ties to Russia, saying “I’ve got a crook running my campaign.”). And they knew that Carter Page was in Moscow parroting Vladmir Putin’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy and making contacts with members of Putin’s administration and members of the Russian parliament.

In this context, the FBI counterintelligence staff had two distinct reasons for wanting to learn more about Carter Page. The first was the traditional responsibility they have to protect all presidential campaigns from foreign penetration.

Trump’s first intelligence briefing as Republican nominee was Aug. 17, 2016, sources told NBC News at the time.

Trump was “briefed and warned” at the session about potential espionage threats from Russia, two former law enforcement officials familiar with the sessions told NBC News.

The second was to figure out if the Trump campaign was itself working as an agent of a foreign power or, at least, setting itself up to be blackmailed by colluding in the leak of emails in a way they could never admit or survive if confirmed.

If the counterintelligence staff asked Stefan Halper to feel out Carter Page during his July 2016 appearance at Cambridge, they were clearly doing their job. Halper is probably someone who reports back frequently on things he observes at Cambridge, and so he’d be the natural person to call. If Page had been appearing at the Sorbonne, the FBI would have called someone else.

After the intelligence community learned George Papadopolous had had advanced warning about the DNC hacks, they enlisted Halper to make contact with him, too. And since Sam Clovis recruited both Page and Papadopoulos, Halper had lunch with him in Virginia in an effort to figure out what was going on. Those meetings happened in early September around the time that Sen. Jeff Sessions was hosting Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in his office.

Halper’s relationship with Carter Page helped the FBI obtain a FISA warrant in mid-October, and Halper kept tabs on him for over a year until the last of four FISA warrants on Page expired.

We don’t yet know all he learned, but there’s no reason I can see to question any of his activities as inappropriate. The counterintelligence unit can be more reasonably be accused of moving too slowly and thereby losing the battle to the Russians.

But considering how sensitive it was to have to investigate an American presidential campaign, they can be excused for their caution.

Martin Longman

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