By Patrick BAHZAD
The snow ball effect keeps on growing. Three days after Buzzfeed published the incendiary private intelligence report that had been circulating inside the Beltway for months, there is still no end in sight to the whole media frenzy. And today's breefing of the House certainly was not intended at making the whole thing fade away. As the endgame emerges more and more clearly, with words such as "treason" and "impeachment" being mentioned with a striking regularity, it looks like caution – once again – is being thrown into the wind. History shows that the inevitable fallout from such an incredible turn of events will be far reaching. What is unclear, is who will benefit from it and who will pay the price. Vae victis !
After each piece of information – or disinformation – that comes to light, we are litteraly bombarded with new speculations that are basically useless at figuring out what is going on. As Inauguration Day approches, chances are, we have not seen the end of it and there still is room for yet another layer of hyperbole.
Hysteria taking over, once again
There are legitimate concerns about what went on, but the current media circus is not the appropriate way to address those questions. Two official reports have now been released, and a third private intelligence report that reads like an indictment also found its way into the press. Elected officials are pursuing an agenda of their own that has nothing to do with the national interest.
Look at the evidence, they are telling us. What evidence ? Asking us to disqualify Trump on the basis on some poorly drafted intelligence reports, or a pile of garbage that could have come right out of a British tabloid, that is a bit of a tough proposition when it comes to the Presidency. Is this what it is all about ? Convincing enough among the American public and in particular among members of Congress that Trump is unfit for office? Or is it just about forcing him into making the policy concessions his opponents in both parties are so eagerly awaiting ?
Up until Tuesday, both courses of action were conceivable, but the leak of the Trump "dossier" changes the equation: unsubstantiated allegations that all major news outlets had refused to publish found their way into the MSM and added what some may have expected to be the final nail in Trump's coffin. There are gaping holes in that narrative though and public opinion as a whole does not seem to buy into it. The question is, however, whether Congress will take the bait. Something very dangerous is looming in the shadows and I can assure you, it is not Vladimir Putin…
The gap between large segments of the populace and the political establishment in D.C. is widening. Tensions are also growing among ordinary Americans. The atmosphere is highly volatile, yet some seem intend on playing with matches. Don't be surprized if the country as a whole is going to lose, and lose big in the end, as there are no possible winners in such a game.
In the highly politicized atmosphere of this post-election America, anything even remotely connected to Trump needs to be handled with extreme caution, as it is immediately scrutinized and interpreted in the most binary way. You're either for Trump, or you're against him. Nothing in between. Against this bias, it is difficult to provide a rational analysis for all that has been said or written in recent weeks, in particular the latest private "intelligence" report.
The Trump "dossier"
It almost seems like any theory is being considered with the same degree of interest and credibility, however far fetched. But instead of looking into the basics, we are getting sucked into a superficial page by page analysis, taking everything at face value and then only looking for clues either for or against it. In other words, we still aren't submitting the allegations to a simple "stress test" aimed at putting them into perspective.
The Trump "dossier" contains 17 short reports that are no less than a compendium of statements presented as facts. Had we been in a court of law, this would largely have fallen under the category "hearsay". More exactly, 7 primary sources – some of them possibly overlapping – as well as some 25 other individuals have made the statements mentioned in the report. The circumstances in which these statements were obtained are neither explained nor described. No assessment is ever made as to the reliability of any of the sources.
If you contectualize the information, or engage in interpretation of the wording in the report, you may get the feeling that this intelligence was collected through various means (face to face discussions, indirect statements obtained through intermediaries, intelligence provided by third parties, possibly intercepts), but you cannot back this up by any strong evidence. Considering that the sources are anonymous, although some of them could possibly be identified and confronted with the claims made in the report, it is virtually impossible to prove or disprove many of the allegations other than basic facts, such as a trip to Prague, which seems to have been debunked already.
Taken as a whole however, there is another way of gauging the credibility of the report. And remember, when you analyse intelligence, always separate the information itself from the source (or author). We are being told Mr. Steele is an accomplished intelligence professional. He has worked in this field for many years, both as a British government operative and a private consultant. That may be. I do not know him personally nor his pedigree, and I am neither biased for nor against him.
Credible information or credible author ?
I am not looking so much at him rather than at the work he has produced. And let's be honest about this: if only 10 % of what is in this report is true, this would be a huge problem for the President-elect, likely to result in his demise. But it would also be a big issue for the IC, because one man – Mr. Steele – would have proven beyond any doubt that a small private business like his is capable of producing intelligence of a quality far better than anything the CIA has produced in relation to Russia since … well, since ever, actually.
For that reason alone, and regardless of some of the most outreagous claims, we should already be very suspicious of the contents. To produce and cultivate not one but several sources that high up in the Kremlin's chain of command would require an outstanding performance, one that calls not only for time and professionalism, but also for resources and a degree of covertness far beyond anything a private company of that size can produce.
It would also have been virtually impossible for Steele to reach out to his sources and meet them on Russian soil. With a pedigree such as his, the Russian government would not grant him a visa, or it would track his every move. Besides, the British government might not have allowed him to travel to Russia either. This means in turn that Steele most likely did not meet any of his Russian primary sources and had to rely mainly on intermediaries to collect the statements he's reporting on.
All this constitutes a further problem regarding the reliability of the dossier. The more human interference there is in the chain of intelligence, the more room there is for human error or foul play. What kind of people did Steele work with to get his sources talking ? How did he assess their trusworthiness ? Again, there is not a word about these aspects. The only thing we can do is look into Mr Steele's resume to figure out which are the most likely answers to those questions.
Cui Bono ?
And these answers may hurt the report's credibility even further: whether Steele got help from Russian oligarchs living in the West (i.e. people having an axe to grind with the Russian government), or through Ukrainian/Baltic intelligence agencies (i.e. people having an axe to grind with the Russian government), either way, it does not look good. It looks even worse when you consider the risk of wilful deception involved here, or just the potential for another "curveball" fiasco, with individuals just saying what we want to hear, either for the sake of financial compensation or political advantage.
Examining who would possibly benefit from such allegations, both domestically and internationally, may provide for another analytical tool that is not dependent upon knowledge of the missing details regarding the report itself. Again there is no way around this: both the sources, in all likelihood a very small number of people, and the clients had an interest in gathering compromising material about Donald Trump.
Let us not forget, Senator McCain had an assistant fly all the way to London to get a copy of the report, in early December 2016, a copy he then personally handed over to FBI director Comey asking him to look into it. The report had been floating around Washington for weeks, all the FBI had to do was to pick it up basically, yet it took that move by McCain to bring the document to the attention of the Bureau, which was as clueless about the specifics of the allegations as the rest of the IC, if we are to believe DNI Clapper.
You can look at this from all angles, there is always a terrible sense of déjà vu about it. Of course, that is not to say it is all "fake news", but then the burden of proof is not on me. It is up to the (not so) public prosecutors going after Trump to make a compelling case, and I'm afraid they are far from having convinced the jury.
A familiar MO
The reason why so many ordinary people aren't thrilled is because they have not forgotten what happened some 14 years ago, with Saddam's imaginary WMDs or his alleged connection to Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and 9/11. The IC is worried about the lack of confidence the general public has in its assessments, yet it is the IC itself – or rather its rank and file – that is mainly to blame for this.
When American lives were at stake, when the future of the country was in the balance, the leaders of the IC chose to lay low and spread loops of lies that some sorcerer apprentices wanted them to feed the country and the world. Taking the moral highground now, when the very same people didn't have to guts to speak up as US servicemen and women were about to be sent to war, that certainly takes some nerve.
Some might argue that the analogy with the case about Saddam is misguided, yet it is striking in more than just one regard. Let us not forget that this was a multilayered and well structured campaign, which – coincidentally – was launched from abroad, by British intelligence reports. Remember the yellow cake and Plamegate ? It started with a private Italian intelligence consultant coming up with of trove of intelligence about Saddam's plan to get his hands on nuclear material from Niger.
The story bounced back and forth a few times, notably through French DGSE, which found it totally unreliable. It was then forwarded to British intelligence and hence found its way into British papers and American intel reports. Turned out, it had all been fabricated with the help of a small number of US intelligence operatives, some of whom are very vocal today in their anti-Trump stance. Remember also the previous "Prague meeting" ? That time it wasn't an associate of Mr.Trump meeting with Russian FSB or GRU handlers, it was allegedly Mohamed Atta – the head of the 9/11 cell – meeting with Iraqi intelligence officers.
Drinking the Kool-Aid … or not
Finally, remember "curveball" ? Another prime source of intelligence very close to Saddam, who basically gave his handlers whatever they wanted to hear. He too was fake and possibly manipulated US intelligence into believing fairytales made up by the Chalabi cabal in order to push the US into overthrowing Saddam. There were many players at work back then. There is a high likelihood that there are many players at work today. Each one with his own agenda, and neither of them acting in the prime interest of the United States and its people.
Does this necessarily mean the current case is all fake ? No it doesn't, but it shows that the damage to the IC's credibility is not a new phenomenon and in that regard, the way Syria was handled in recent years probably just added to the sense of suspicion the IC leadership now finds itself exposed to. This is very much a self-inflicted wound and Donald Trump is not responsible for it. He may be using it to his advantage, but he surely is not the root cause.