New Russiagate Docs: Bombshell or Hoax? | M.N.: One more observation: the Kremlin Papers were published at the time of the Merkel's farewell visit to Washington, which might point to the connections of the leakers but not necessarily to the authenticity of this document.

M.N.: One more observation: the Kremlin Papers were published at the time of the Merkel's farewell visit to Washington, which might point to the connections of the leakers but not necessarily to the authenticity of this document. 

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New Russiagate Docs: Bombshell or Hoax?

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Thursday’s bombshell in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, “Kremlin papers appear to show Putin’s plot to put Trump in White House,” shook up the Internet and revived interest in Donald Trump’s role as a suspected Russian asset. But it also raised questions about how such documents could possibly have been leaked from a tight circle of Kremlin insiders and, therefore, whether or not they were real—or just another sleight of hand from Moscow.

Citing papers that were “assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents,” the article, by Luke Harding, Julian Borger, and Dan Sabbagh, asserted that in January 2016, just after Trump became the Republican Party’s frontrunner for the November elections, Vladimir Putin authorized secret operations to support “mentally unstable” Donald Trump’s bid to become president. 

According to The Guardian, the documents show that the Kremlin decided that facilitating Trump’s “election to the post of US president…will definitely lead to the destabilization of the US’s sociopolitical system.” 

The documents also included the names of the highly-placed Kremlin officials who supposedly attended these alleged secret meetings, and details about how they sought to influence American public opinion through strategically executed active measures (covert action, in U.S. terminology).

The Guardian also reported that the documents “apparently” confirm "that the Kremlin possesses kompromat" on Trump from the then-real estate mogul’s “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory” beginning in 1987. 

All of which is perfectly aligned with the findings in my most recent book, American Kompromat, in which I reported, for the first time, a detailed account of exactly how the KGB orchestrated those trips and how Trump was “groomed” by alleged KGB assets before going to Moscow. 

The Guardian cited independent experts who said the Kremlin documents appear to be genuine. However, former senior intelligence officials from the CIA, the White House National Security Council and the KGB, including some who specialized in Russia for years, told SpyTalk they had serious questions about the authenticity of the documents and the timing of their release. 

“While I’m certain that Putin played Trump like a fiddle and directed a multifaceted campaign to influence U.S. opinion, sow chaos and support his candidacy, I find the timing and extraordinary level of detail in these ostensibly highly classified reports curious,” said Douglas London, a retired senior CIA operations officer who is now an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

“The value and reliability of intelligence is based on its source and our ability to validate his or her access and motivations,” added London, author of a forthcoming memoir about his three decades in the CIA, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.

“Coincidence and convenience are red flags in espionage,” he told SpyTalk. “So why now? And how would any beyond Putin’s most inner circle have access? Why would they wait until now to share these documents? And why wouldn’t they have cut a lucrative deal by defecting and/or cooperating in place with a Western Intelligence service—or defect and go public with a huge expose and book deal?”

SpyTalk reached out to the Guardian’s Luke Harding for comment on the authenticity of the documents. He referred us to the paper’s media representative, who did not respond to our inquiry.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s security services, told the Guardian that the leaked documents “reflect the reality” of top Kremlin decision-making, and noted Putin "micro-manages" most special operations. Sir Andrew Wood, former British ambassador in Moscow, called them “spell-binding.”

But Mark Medish, who served as senior director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, said the documents did not clearly seem to be aligned with Russia’s operational practices. 

“The Russian security council is a formal body, and the notion that it is operational does not ring true,” Medish said. “That is not what Putin uses the security council for. The Russians definitely do active measures, but that’s all in a black box. The idea that it’s discussed in a meeting with 13 people—I don’t believe that happens.”

Medish noted he had not seen the underlying documents, and hoped that they would shed more light on their provenance. “We must ask who wants us to see this now and why?” he added.

Vetting Challenge

Similarly, John Sipher, a former senior CIA officer who served in Moscow and ran Russian operations for the agency’s clandestine service, urged caution. “Without the resources of a professional intelligence organization, nobody can say for certain” how real they are.

But offhand, he commented, the documents not only appear “too neat and tied in a bow” to be taken at face value, they invite scrutiny of their provenance.

Other former intelligence officers had similar reactions.

“I’m surprised that such a document would leak, but not in the least surprised by what it says,”  said Glenn Carle, a former national intelligence officer at the CIA. “It is exactly what my assessment was [in 2015] and it seems to confirm exactly what I’ve said.” Carle first raised questions about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia long before he won the Republican nomination.

“These documents would have been incredibly tightly held, and the risks of leaking are mortal,” Carle added. “These are ruthless people.”

The Guardian also claimed that, “Western intelligence agencies are understood to have been aware of the documents for some months and to have carefully examined them”—which would seem to imply the agencies have granted them some credibility. Yet none of the agencies have stepped forward to say so, even after previously declaring without reservation that Putin favored Trump in the 2016 election and took steps to help him.

Trump did not initially respond to the allegations, the Guardian reported, but his spokeswoman Liz Harrington later relayed his statement dismissing the story.

"This is disgusting,” it said. “It’s fake news, just like RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA was fake news. It’s just the Radical Left crazies doing whatever they can to demean everybody on the right."

As usual, Trump’s sentiments were perfectly aligned with the Kremlin, where Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov described the Guardian piece as “a great pulp fiction.”

Former KGB officer Yuri Shvets also voiced serious questions about the provenance of the “leak.” Like Carle, Shvets said any of the Russians in the chain of custody would be risking their freedom, if not their life, in leaking them.

“The Kremlin is not the White House,” said Shvets, who has lived in the United States since the 1990s. “They are not known for leaking this kind of document.

“Second, these documents have top security clearance,” Shvets added. “Access is limited to a handful of people, and the movement of the file between them is registered. If someone wants to see them, the guy who is the keeper of the file makes an entry in a journal, so to find who leaked it would take just 15 minutes. And the leaker would get 15 years in jail.”

As a result, Shvets thinks it highly unlikely that these documents would be the product of an unauthorized leak.

“These people working in the Kremlin are fine and dandy,” he told me. “They’re all millionaires. Why would they risk their lives to leak a document to Luke Harding? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump also noted a number of oddities in the January 2016 document and called attention to the fact that it included a discussion of “how Russia might insert ‘media viruses’ into American public  life,” when, in fact, such efforts had been underway since the first half of 2014.

None of which means that The Guardian got it wrong. It may simply mean that the contents of the document were accurate and it was created by the Kremlin—but not in 2016, and for its own, yet-to-be-deciphered purposes. That’s sloppy. It may well have been a provocation that was designed to discredit the Guardian and other media who have reported aggressively on Trump’s ties to Russia. Or to distract attention from some of the lingering, unanswered questions about Russian involvement in Trump’s financial affairs.

The new papers, it needs noting, contain nothing about how Trump laundered money for the Russian Mafia or how his bankrupt real estate empire was bailed out by the Bayrock Group, which was run by people with ties to Russian intelligence.

"This is potentially an extremely important revelation,” said Medish, “but I don’t want us to get caught out in another Hitler’s diary hoax.” 

Medish was referring to the 1983 discovery of diaries purportedly written by Adolf Hitler that turned out to be fraudulent, much to the embarrassment of historians and news organizations who thought they were authentic. “If the Russians wanted to discredit the journalists behind this, that’s one way to do it," Medish said. 

“My opinion is this came from the Kremlin, but that the documents were not created in 2016,” said Olga Lautman, a specialist in Russian and Ukrainian affairs and host of a soon-to-be launched podcast called Kremlin File. “That might explain why the documents focused narrowly on Trump versus a bigger picture of how they compromised the entire Republican Party.”   

Probes Derailed

Answering these questions, however, would be easier if there had been a serious counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s suspected secret relationship with Russia, but the United States has repeatedly failed to do that. As director of the FBI, James Comey began such a probe in 2017, but he was immediately fired by Trump. When Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, he was initially mandated to undertake a counterintelligence investigation to determine if Trump had been compromised by Russia. But Mueller did not see that as part of his brief. In the end, his report had just a solitary paragraph dealing with the question of Trump and Russian agents, and all it said was that the FBI had embedded personnel in Mueller’s office whose purpose was to send summaries to the FBI—period. There was nothing in it about Trump laundering money for the Russian Mafia or how he was bailed out by Russian money.

As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) told the Washington Post in 2019, that staggering omission presented a serious problem.  

“Counterintelligence concerns go beyond mere violation of criminal law,” Schiff said. “They’re at one time not necessarily a criminal activity and at the same time potentially far more serious than criminal activity, because you have the capacity to warp U.S. policy owing to some form of compromise.” 

For the time being, however, those questions—and many others raised by the Guardian’s documents— remain unanswered.

SpyTalk Editor Jeff Stein contributed to this story.


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