Note: Adam has already written a post on this New York Times story. I was working on this one, which comes at the issues a little differently, but there’s overlap. I decided not to change it by much.
This is an amazing story. Amazing for its substance and for how it came to be.
Bruce Ohr is a Justice Department official whom Donald Trump has been tweeting about. Trump has linked Ohr to Hillary Clinton, Christopher Steele, and Russia. Why is Trump so concerned about a mid-level Justice Department official?
The Times story doesn’t directly address that question. But it fills in some things about Bruce Ohr. Additionally, it shows that Congressional Republicans have been using classification to invent a story that they thought couldn’t be refuted.
Christopher Steele and Bruce Ohr began discussing turning Oleg Deripaska in November 2014, almost a full year before the Washington Examiner, a conservative newspaper, engaged Fusion GPS to investigate Donald Trump’s background. The dossier that Steele would later pull together for Fusion and its later client, Hillary Clinton, was nine months in the future.
The FBI knew that Russia was trying to interfere in the election, and they wanted to know more about Paul Manafort, who had worked with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin. Steele had connections that could help. Deripaska was allowed to travel to New York on a diplomatic passport as part of the Russian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. Steele set up a meeting.
Mr. Ohr attended the meeting, during which the Americans pressed Mr. Deripaska on the connections between Russian organized crime and Mr. Putin’s government, as well as other issues, according to a person familiar with the events. The person said that Mr. Deripaska told the Americans that their theories were off base and did not reflect how things worked in Russia.
There were other contacts with Deripaska, but no success in getting anything like cooperation. According to the article, other oligarchs were contacted as well.
And then came the dossier. The FBI and the spy agencies had been looking at possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russians since late 2015; the dossier fit into that.
The Republicans on the intelligence committees had access to emails between Ohr and Steele, along with other documents. Their story focused on the dossier, and they falsely claimed that it was the basis for FISA surveillance and other law enforcement actions. They could do this, they thought, because the documents were classified, so that the full story couldn’t be told.
Indeed, an attempt by American intelligence agencies to turn Russian oligarchs is something that should be classified. Why are the sources for the Times story talking about it now?
The Times identifies its sources as “current and former officials and associates of Mr. Deripaska.” They didn’t take the officials’ word for it, they talked to Deripaska’s associates as well.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an initiative that remains classified. Most expressed deep discomfort, saying they feared that in revealing the attempts to cultivate Mr. Deripaska and other oligarchs they were undermining American national security and strengthening the grip that Mr. Putin holds over those who surround him.
But they also said they did not want Mr. Trump and his allies to use the program’s secrecy as a screen with which they could cherry-pick facts and present them, sheared of context, to undermine the special counsel’s investigation. That, too, they said they feared, would damage American security.
The American officials are obviously part of the intelligence community. If the attempt to turn the oligarchs was not already dead, it is now. Deripaska and other oligarchs may have a problem in convincing Putin that they have not been turned, although those relationships probably bear a weight of distrust in any case. Trump’s attacks on Ohr have put him in a difficult position that probably won’t be made much worse by these revelations.
What the Republicans in Congress are doing is despicable. Intelligence professionals have strong commitments both to fact and to national security. When the Republicans circulate lies to damage the Mueller investigation or the intelligence agencies themselves, they put intelligence professionals in an impossible position. Some of them decided to talk to the New York Times. They decided that breaking their silence is less damaging than the Republican attacks.