Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
Cohen reminds listeners that the Russiagate scandal, which first leaked into the media in mid-2016, has already done immense political damage during these two years. It has cast doubt on the legitimacy of this presidency and possibly future ones. It has questioned the authenticity of a popular election and probably future ones, and thus of American democracy itself. And with high-level former US officials, influential columnists, and an array of mainstream-media outlets regularly declaring that President Trump is “a quisling” and “a Russian agent,” the scandal has greatly diminished his capacity to avoid war with Russia, conceivably nuclear war. Meanwhile, as happened during the McCarthy era, a myriad of official and media “investigations” have cast an ever-widening net in search of evidence of other “colluders,” from peripheral Trump “advisers” and shadowy “informants” to a Russian prostitute and her pimp in Thailand. After all this time and frenzy, substantiated charges and indictments amount to little more than customary financial corruption on the part of the bipartisan top 2 percent and “lying to the FBI,” the latter apparently open to interpretation as to what was actually said and perhaps involving entrapment. Meanwhile, reputations are slurred, lives ruined, once-respectable media degraded, and public discourse—especially about international affairs, but not only—chilled by self-censorship and growing institutional forms of “preventing disinformation.”
Amid this daily frenzy, it’s often forgotten that Russiagate’s “core narrative,” as one of its most devout and prominent promoters terms it, was inspired by, and continues to be based on, two documents, both published in January 2017: an “Intelligence Community Assessment” and the anti-Trump “dossier” compiled by a retired UK intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. The “core narrative” of both was, of course, that Putin’s Kremlin had intervened in the 2016 presidential election—essentially an “attack on America”—in order to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and abet Trump’s. At the time, a few critics questioned the authenticity of the ICA and the dossier, but for political and media Russiagaters, they instantly became, and have remained, canons, despite their deficit of facts and logic. Reread today, in light of what is now known, they are examples of the adage “rubbish in, rubbish out.”
Intentionally or not—one former intelligence officer called it a “deliberate misrepresentation”—the ICA, by using the term “Community,” gave the impression that its findings were the consensus of all “17 US intelligence agencies,” even though it was signed by only three (the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA) and by the overseeing director of national intelligence, James Clapper. This canard was widely deployed by pro-Clinton media and by her campaign until The New York Times belatedly corrected it in June 2017. But even then, anti-Trump forces continue to deploy a deceptive formulation, insisting that the ICA narrative was “a consensus of the intelligence community.” That was false on two counts. Clapper subsequently admitted he had personally selected for the ICA analysts from the three agencies, but we still do not know who. No doubt these were analysts who would conform to the “core narrative” of Kremlin-Trump collusion, possibly even one or more of the FBI officials now exposed for their “bias.” Second, on one crucial finding, the NSA had only “moderate confidence,” not the “high confidence” of the CIA and FBI. This has yet to be explained.
Still more, the ICA provided almost no facts for its “assessment.” Remarkably, even the Times, which has long been a leading promoter of the Russiagate narrative, noticed this immediately: “What is missing,” one of its lead analysts wrote, is “hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims.” Even more remarkable but little noticed, the ICA authors buried at the end this nullifying disclaimer about their “assessment”: “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.” What did that mean? Apparently, that after all the damning and ramifying allegations made in the report, the authors had no “proof” that any of them were a “fact.”
Of course, throughout the ICA document its authors assured readers that it possessed information too sensitive, too classified, to reveal. Despite some criticism of the barren document, nothing more has since been revealed, with one telling exception, also little noted. Buried in a story based on Intel leaks in The Washington Post on December 15, 2017, and repeated in an editorial on December 17, the reporters claimed there was “an extraordinary CIA stream of intelligence that had captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation.” The Post editorial was more explicit, referring to “intelligence from inside the Kremlin.” We might interpret this apparently sensational revelation in one of two ways. If true, it meant the CIA had a human or technical mole in Putin’s Kremlin office. If so, leaking the existence of such a priceless intelligence “asset” would have been a grave national-security crime demanding an intense search for the culprit and severe criminal punishment. So far as is known, there was neither. Or the Post or its Intel leaker just made it up. Given the vacuous nature of the ICA and its authors’ disclaimer of having proof or facts, the latter may be more likely.
Which brings Cohen to Steele’s dossier. Since Steel also professed to be getting his information from “inside the Kremlin,” it is possible that the Postor its Intel leaker was referring to his confection, which, though still unpublished, was already known in high intelligence and political circles and which media had made unattributed use of since mid-2016. Since his identity as author of the dossier became known, Steele’s personal reputation has been seriously tarnished. Not surprisingly, prominent supporters of the Russiagate narrative have made a major effort to rehabilitate him as a “hero.” But the fact that Steele was paid by the Clinton campaign for his anti-Trump “intelligence” reports—lavishly, it is said—is not the real issue but instead his actual sources and the information in his dossier. Both have been seriously questioned. As Cohen documented previously, Steele’s claim that his sources were current or former Russian intelligence or other officials at the Kremlin level is implausible. In addition, others were compiling “Russian dirt” on Trump, including the wife of a top FBI official and people personally close to Mrs. Clinton. It’s hard to believe that their “dirt” did not find its way into Steele’s compilation. Indeed, in the dossier, Steele repeatedly cites as a source a Russian émigré associate of Trump—that is, apparently an American.
As for the anti-Trump “information” in Steele’s 35-page dossier, it would take at least 70 pages to document the systemically unconvincing nature of the document. Fortunately, a knowledgeable and meticulous investigator has done at least half the job. What he reveals is an abundance of factual errors, inconsistencies, outright contradictions, and, equally important, information purportedly from secret Kremlin sources but that had already been published in open Russian or other media. (History shows that the trick to making a falsified document at least semi-plausible is to include a few facts previously verified in open sources.) And, one might add, some illogic in the dossier: Would Trump, a longtime hotelier, really commit “acts of sexual perversion” in a VIP suite he did not control, especially in Russia, where audio and video bugging had long been rumored? In the end, Steele’s dossier may be a quintessential example of “rubbish in, rubbish out,” an expression I first heard from another former British intelligence officer who also specialized in Russian affairs more than 40 years ago.
But there remains the equally important matter of logic, especially as related to the allegation that Putin personally “ordered” and “directed” the Russiagate operation on behalf of Trump, a charge that structures the common narrative of the ICA and the dossier. Pervasive demonizing of Putin aside, why would he have done this? What was his motive? The two “core” documents give varying explanations, as do media accounts and the several books that rely heavily on them. It was “payback” for Clinton’s having encouraged protests against Putin in Moscow in 2011–12. No, it was a clear long-standing preference for Trump, going back as far as perhaps eight years, though this is contradicted in several ways in the Steele dossier, where some Kremlin officials are reported to doubt they should favor him. Then, certain that Clinton would win, Putin sought to cripple her presidency. It’s even said that the operation was payback not for Clinton’s offenses but for what Putin saw as the US-led doping scandal that so battered the Russian Olympic team after the 2014 Sochi games. Today, however, the general Russiagate explanation has grown into Putin’s alleged desire to sow “chaos and disorder” in the West generally, both in the United States and Europe—or as the ICA puts it, “the US-led liberal democratic order”—and therefore, it is often said, he has “won.”
Anyone who has studied Putin as a leader closely and objectively over nearly 20 years understands there is little if any logic in these explanations for the motives attributed to him. He may have intensely disliked Mrs. Clinton, and thought she acted highly improperly in 2011 by meddling in Russia’s elections, but nothing in his long-observed political character suggests he would have acted petulantly to get “payback” with such a risk involved. (Putin also understood full well that Clinton was not responsible for the mass protests.) Undertaking such a Russiagate operation in the United States on behalf of Trump would surely become known and thereby greatly favor Clinton electorally. A man said to be an exceedingly cunning “former KGB officer” would certainly have understood that—and even if he so favored Trump, would never have authorized it. (Even Steele reports that some top-level Kremlin officials feared the purported operation would “backfire” and be “counterproductive.”)
But the larger fallacy derives from failing to understand Putin’s mission ever since he came to power in 1999–2000, and which he has never ceased stating: to rebuild Russia, whose state had collapsed twice in the 20th century, as a stable, prosperous great power, foremost at home but also abroad. Despite the new Cold War and all that has disrupted Russia’s relations with the West, Putin persists in this goal, to the great consternation of his hard-line critics. In May, for example, he said: “To attract capital from friendly companies and countries, we need good relations with Europe and with the whole world, including the United States.” And in June, amid heightened tensions over Russiagate and other scandals, he amplified: “It is not our aim to divide anything or anybody in Europe…. On the contrary, we want to see a united and prosperous European Union because the European Union is our biggest trade and economic partner. The more problems there are within the European Union, the greater the risk and uncertainties for us.” Is this really a Russian leader who would risk his entire mission and legacy on tawdry “kompromat” on behalf of an American candidate and then president whose caprice had unnerved the Kremlin only slightly less than it did Washington? A leader who would consider that he had “won” as a result of Russiagate?
In short, in these most dangerous of times in US-Russian relations, American politics is consumed by a Russiagate “core narrative” that is essentially a conspiracy theory about an alleged conspiracy. The first victim is rational discourse, the second rational policy-making, the third our own national security. At this moment, we need above all a full critical discussion of that orthodox “core narrative” in the American mainstream media, from which truly informed dissenting opinions are effectively banned. Serious, nonpartisan alternative explanations of various crucial aspects of the “core narrative” have been published and broadcast, but almost never by influential mainstream-media outlets. In these times, it may be the case that anything could be true, including conspiracies. But it is both reckless and undemocratic to prevent public discussion of all of the possibilities, not just those that uncritically support Russiagate’s “core narrative.”