Tag Archives: Christopher Steele

The Russian Brexit Plot That Wasn’t

Russian Disinformation. Russian Disinformation. Russian Disinformation. How many time have you heard that over the past four years?

But what about British disinformation?

Much of the current Russia paranoia began with the claims that Donald Trump was recruited by Russian intelligence years ago as a sleeper agent, and then given a leg-up into the presidency of the United States with the help of the GRU. The claims of ‘collusion’ were repeated over and over, and yet at the end of the day none of them could be substantiated. And where did it all start? In the now notorious dossier assembled by former British spook Christopher Steele.

Steele, it has now been revealed, got his information from a guy called Igor Danchenko. He in his turn got a lot of it from a former classmate, Olga Galkina, described as an alcoholic ‘disgruntled PR executive living in Cyprus’, and as such obviously a well-informed source with intimate knowledge of the Kremlin’s innermost secrets.

In short, the Steele dossier was a load of hokum, commissioned by a British Black PR operative and then fabricated by some random Russian émigrés with no access to anything of value. And yet, millions believed it.

And then, we have the story of Brexit. Ever since the 2016 referendum which resulted in Britain leaving the European Union, we have been repeatedly told that the victory of the Leave campaign was made possible by ‘Russian interference’. Most significantly, it was claimed that the Russian government illicitly funded the Leave campaign by funneling money through the campaign’s most significant financial backer, businessman Arron Banks.

Leading the charge against Russia and Banks was journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer (as the Sunday version of The Guardian is known). ‘We know that the Russian government offered money to Arron Banks’, she said. ‘I am not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government’, she added, ‘I say he lied about his contact with the Russian government. Because he did.’

But it turns out that it was Cadwalladr who had a tricky relationship with the truth. Angered by her assertions, Arron Banks sued her for libel. Three weeks ago, she publicly backed down from one of her accusations. ‘On 22 Oct 2020,’ she said, ‘I tweeted that Arron had been found to have broken the law. I accept he has not. I regret making this false statement, which I have deleted. I undertake not to repeat it. I apologise to Arron for the upset and distress caused.’

This week Cadwalladr went further. The judge in the libel trial ruled that the meaning of her statement that Banks had lied about his relationship with the Russians was that he had lied about taking money from Russia, and that she had intended this as a statement of fact, not a call for further investigation. In the face of this judgement, Cadwalladr withdrew her ‘truth’ defence and has been ordered to pay Banks’ costs relating to this aspect of the case. In this way she in effect conceded that she was not willing to defend as fact the proposition that Russia financed Leave via Banks. While Cadwalladr continues to fight the case using a ‘public interest’ defence, the withdrawal of the truth argument is a dramatic concession.

The Banks story is not the only problematic aspect of Cadwalladr’s reporting. The journalist earned international plaudits and a prestigious Orwell prize for her report on how the British firm Cambridge Analytica supposedly used big data dredged up out of Facebook to help both the Leave campaign and Donald Trump win victories in 2016. This too had a Russian connection. In a 2018 article for The Observer Cadwalladr described how, ‘Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who orchestrated the harvesting of Facebook data, had previously unreported ties a Russian university. … Cambridge Analytica, the data firm he worked with … also attracted interest from a key Russian firm with links to the Kremlin.’

Others jumped on the Russia-Cambridge connection. ‘The Facebook data farmed by Cambridge Analytica was accessed from Russia’, claimed British MP Damien Collins, head of the House of Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. In this capacity, he then published a report outlining allegations of Russian propaganda and meddling in British affairs, including unsubstantiated insinuations that Russian money had influenced the Brexit campaign via Mr Banks.

And yet, all this was false too. The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) spent over two years investigating Cambridge Analytica, including its alleged role in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and its supposed ties to Russian government influence operations. Having completed its investigation, the ICO reported that apart from a single Russian IP address in data connected to Cambridge Analytica, it had found no evidence of Russian involvement with the company. Moreover, it concluded that claims of the company’s enormous influence were ‘hype’, unjustified by the facts.

In other words, just like the Steele dossier, the whole story about Russia influencing the outcome of the Brexit referendum was made-up nonsense.

And yet, it has had an enormous influence. The allegations that Russia ‘interfered’ in Brexit have been repeated again and again – in parliamentary reports, newspaper articles, scholarly journals, books, social media, and so on. Despite their falsehood, they have enjoyed a spread and influence that Russian ‘meddlers’ could only dream of.

Will the peddlers of British disinformation repent? Will they now pen scores of articles admitting that they were wrong? Will they give evidence to parliament denouncing the scourge of false stories about Russia emanating from the British media and MPs?

Of course not. Ms Cadwalladr’s humiliation will get a few lines buried somewhere deep in some newspapers’ inner pages, and will then be forgotten. Meanwhile, the original claims will remain uncorrected in the many documents that repeat them, and the myth of Russian interference in Brexit will trundle on as a basis for denouncing the threat emanating from the East. The damage has been done. Ms Cadwalladr has been discredited, but someone else will soon be found to pick up the torch.

My thoughts on that memo

So, the long anticipated ‘memo’ detailing how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to endorse secret surveillance of one-time, very marginal, Trump foreign affairs advisor Carter Page, has been released. The key allegations are:

  • The DOJ and FBI based their application to the court on the so-called ‘dossier’ of salacious allegations about Trump assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
  • The dossier was commissioned by the Trump’s opponents in the Democratic party, and the person who put it together, Steele, admitted to being ‘passionate’ about preventing Trump being elected.
  • The DOJ and FBI failed to tell the court about the political motivations of those who commissioned and wrote the dossier.
  • The DOJ and FBI provided evidence which they said corroborated the dossier, but that evidence in fact also came from Steele – so, it wasn’t corroborating evidence at all.
  • Steele was in contact with the DOJ through a senior official, Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife worked for the company which commissioned Steele and which was engaged in the ‘cultivation of opposition research on Trump’.
  • The FBI eventually assessed the Steele dossier as ‘only minimally corroborated’.

What should we make of all this?

First, complaints by Democratic politicians and the FBI that releasing the memo somehow threatens national security have been shown to be entirely wrong. There is nothing in this which does anything other than threaten the reputation of the DOJ and FBI and indicate that the Trump collusion story originates in a decidedly dubious document.

Second, Republican hopes that this would be the big thing that brought the Russia investigation to an end have not been justified. There’s nothing here which is so enormously outrageous and so totally discredits the investigation that Trump will be able to stop it.

Third, the justification for spying on Page provided to the court by the DOJ and FBI appears to be the result of sloppy intelligence work. The fourth point above is a clear example of what is called ‘circular reporting’ – i.e. corroborating information by citing evidence which in fact comes from the same source as the supposed information.

Fourth, the credence given to the dossier was also poor intelligence work. A lot of the claims in it were quite extraordinary and in any case implied that Steele, a man who hadn’t even been to Russia for 20 years, somehow had access to the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. A greater degree of scepticism was warranted. The fact that such scepticism was lacking suggests either a) once again, sloppiness, or b) bias. Neither is good, though the first is probably preferable since the latter would imply that a decision to spy on what appears to be an entirely innocent American citizen was founded on political motives.

Fifth, the connections between Ohr, his wife, Steele, and opposition research suggest a rather too cozy relationship between DOJ and those seeking to undermine Trump. At the very least, there was what could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Sixth, in the end I don’t think that any of the above will matter. Peddlers of the collusion story will no doubt shake this off, pointing out that the memo is the work of Republican politicians and claiming that it is therefore biased and misleading. They will say that it leaves out important information, such as other reasons why the court may have given permission to spy on Page (I’m guessing that the so-called ‘Australian connection’ will be raised in this regard – i.e. information supposedly provided  by Trump aide George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat, even though as the memo says, there was no connection between Page and Papadopoulos)

Given all that, I imagine that i) those believing that the Trump collusion story is made-up nonsense, and the President is a victim of a conspiracy of Democrats and their allies in the ‘deep state’ will feel vindicated; while ii) supporters of the collusion theory will see the release as further evidence that Republicans are just trying to divert attention because they have something to hide. The primary result, therefore, will simply be a hardening of positions on both sides and an accentuation of the already sharp divisions in American politics. In short, the show will go on.