The ongoing investigation headed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller into alleged collusion between the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump and the Russian government has moved into a new phase, with a focus on purported money laundering. On Monday, indictments were filed against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime associate Rick Gates.
But even more is emerging that could take the Russia story in a totally new direction—namely that the infamous dossier compiled by former British Secret Intelligence Service officer Michael Steele was bought and paid for by a law firm, Perkins Coie, working on behalf of both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The current controversy isn’t so much over the contents of the dossier—despite some of the reporting, none of the relevant claims contained within have been verified. Rather, the issue in question is how opposition research derived from foreign intelligence sources and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC ended up influencing the decision to prepare the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, the contents of that assessment, and the subsequent investigations by the U.S. Congress and a special prosecutor.
The extent to which the Steele Dossier influenced the intelligence underpinning Mueller’s probe has yet to be determined with any certainty. In January, the U.S. intelligence community published the unclassified ICA, which was derived from a compilation of intelligence reports and assessments conducted by the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Many of the allegations made in the ICA mirror reporting contained in the Steele Dossier. So striking are the similarities that there are real concerns among some senior Republican lawmakers that the ICA merely reflects “echoes” of the Steele Dossier reported back via liaison with foreign intelligence services who had access to it (namely the British Secret Intelligence Service) or whose own sources were also utilized by Steele.
According to Robert Litt, who served as general counsel to former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, this mirroring was nothing more than coincidence. “The dossier itself,” Litt wrote in a recent Lawfare blog, “played absolutely no role in the coordinated intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in our election. That assessment, which was released in unclassified form in January but which contained much more detail in the classified version that has been briefed to Congress, was based entirely on other sources and analysis.”
Moreover, Litt noted, the decision in December 2016 to brief President-elect Trump on the existence of the Steele Dossier and provide him with a two-page summary of that document, was not a reflection that “the Intelligence Community had relied on it in any way, or even made any determination that the information it contained was reliable and accurate.” It was rather, Litt said, a need to share with Trump the fact that the document existed and was being passed around Congress and the media.
An examination of the nexus between the dossier and the publication of the Russian ICA, however, shows that Litt was less than truthful in his denials. Material from the Steele Dossier was, in fact, shared with the FBI and U.S. intelligence community in July of 2016, and seems to have been the driving force behind the intelligence briefings provided to the so-called Gang of Eight who served as the initial impetus for an investigation into Russian meddling that eventually morphed into the 2017 Russian ICA.
Moreover, while Perkins Coie had its hands all over the dossier, it was also massaging the Russian hack narrative for mainstream media primetime.
The political law practice of Perkins Coie was started in 1981 under the leadership of Bob Bauer, who went on to become the White House Counsel to President Barack Obama. Today, the practice is headed by Marc Elias, who has been described as “the Democrats’ go-to attorney…an indispensable figure in the party.” Elias oversees the work of 18 attorneys representing nearly every Democratic senator, as well as the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and Hillary for America, which oversaw the Clinton campaign.
It was in the latter two roles that Elias, acting on behalf of his clients, retained Fusion GPS, a Washington, D.C.-based company that, according to its website, “provides premium research, strategic intelligence, and due diligence services.” Fusion GPS had previously been contracted by the Washington Free Beacon “to provide research on multiple candidates in the Republican presidential primary.” However, when it became clear that Trump was going to secure the Republican Party nomination, the contract with Fusion GPS was terminated. According to a letter sent by Perkins Coie to Fusion GPS sometime in March 2016, Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of Fusion GPS, met with Elias and lobbied for the job of conducting opposition research on behalf of the Clinton campaign. In April 2016, Simpson’s company was retained by the firm through the end of the election cycle.
Perkins Coie is also home to Michael Sussman, a partner in the firm’s Privacy and Data Security Practice, who was retained by the DNC to respond to the cyber-penetration of their server in the spring of 2016. When, in late April 2016, the DNC discovered that its servers had been breached, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, then chairwoman of the DNC, turned to Perkins Coie and Sussman for help. Sussman chaired the meetings at the DNC regarding the breach, and, on May 4, 2016, he reached out to Shawn Henry, a former FBI agent who headed the incident response unit for the private cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, for assistance in mitigating the fallout from the breach. According to CrowdStrike, it was immediately able to detect the presence of hostile malware that it identified as Russian in origin. Sussman, after coordinating with Wasserman-Schultz, approached the FBI and tried to get them to publicly attribute the intrusion to Russia.
When the FBI refused, citing a need to gain access to the DNC servers before it could make that call, Sussman balked and, again with the full support of the DNC, instead coordinated a massive publicity effort intended to link Russia to the DNC breach through an exclusive to the Washington Post, which was published in concert with a dramatic CrowdStrike technical report detailing the intrusion, ominously named “Bears in the Midst.”
This public relations campaign started the media frenzy over the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC server, enabling every facet of the story that followed to be painted with a Russian brush—normally with a spokesperson from either the DNC or Hillary for America taking the lead in promulgating the story.
It was about this same time that Elias decided to expand the scope of Fusion GPS’s opposition research against Trump, going beyond the simple mining of open-source information that had been the hallmark of the firm’s work up until that time, and instead delving into the active collection of information using methodologies more akin to the work of spy agencies. The person Fusion GPS turned to for this task was Steele.
Key persons within the Clinton campaign and the DNC denied any knowledge of either the decision by Perkins Coie to hire Fusion GPS for the purpose of gathering opposition research, or to tap Steele to conduct this task. Elias reportedly made use of money already paid to the firm by the Clinton campaign and the DNC to fund the work of Fusion GPS, creating the conditions for deniability on the part of his clients. This decision meant that Perkins Coie, as a firm, had ownership of the Steele Dossier; expenditures of firm assets require the approval of either the management or executive committee of the firm (Elias sits on the executive committee).
But as far as intelligence products go, the Steele Dossier is as sketchy as it gets. It’s an amalgam of poorly written “reports” cobbled together from what Vanity Fair called “angry émigrés,” “wheeling and dealing oligarchs,” and “political dissidents with well-honed axes to grind.” These are precisely the kind of sources intelligence professionals operating in Russia in the early 1990s—Steele was assigned to Moscow from 1990 to 1993—would have had access to. Such sources also produce information that professional analysts normally treat with more than a modicum of skepticism when preparing national-level intelligence products.
The very first report produced by Steele, dated June 20, 2016, was chock full of the kind of salacious details justifying its explosive title, “Republican Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin.” The substantive charges leveled in the report centered on three unnamed sources—a senior Foreign Ministry official, a former top-level Russian intelligence officer, and a senior Russian financial official—whom Steele accessed through a “trusted compatriot.” The report alleged that Russia had been feeding the Trump campaign “valuable intelligence” on Clinton, and that this effort was supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A second report, dated June 26, 2016, focused exclusively on “Russian State Sponsored and Other Cyber Offensive (Criminal) Operations.”
These reports were delivered to Elias at a critical time—on July 22, when Wikileaks released thousands of emails believed to have been sources from the DNC hack. These emails detailed the internal deliberations of the DNC that proved to be embarrassing to both Clinton and the DNC leadership—Wasserman-Schultz was compelled to resign due to the revelations set forth in these emails. This leak took place on the eve of the Democratic National Convention when Clinton was to be selected as the Democrats’ candidate for president. The Clinton campaign blamed Russia. “Russian state actors,” Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign manager told the press, “were feeding the email to hackers for the purpose of helping Donald Trump.”
If Elias thought the publication of the DNC emails would spur the U.S. intelligence community to join both the DNC and the Clinton campaign in pointing an accusatory finger at Russia, he would be disappointed. When questioned by CNN’s Jim Sciutto at the 2016 Aspen Security Forum as to whether or not the DNI shared the White House’s view that there was no doubt Russia was behind the hack of the DNC emails, Clapper responded, “I don’t think we are quite ready to make a call on attribution…I don’t think we are ready to make a public call on that yet.” Noting that there was still some uncertainty about exactly who was behind the DNC cyber-penetration, Clapper stated that he was taken aback by the media’s “hyperventilation” over the DNC email issue, pointing out that the intelligence community did not “know enough to ascribe motivation” at that time.
According to the Washington Post, in early August 2016, the CIA director John Brennan came into possession of “sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.” This intelligence was briefed to the Gang of Eight. Almost immediately, information derived from this briefing began to leak to the media. “Russia’s hacking appeared aimed at helping Mr. Trump win the November election,” officials with knowledge of Brennan’s intelligence told the New York Times. The intelligence, referred to as “bombshell,” allegedly “captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”
This intelligence, allegedly from a “human source” linked to a foreign intelligence service, is at the center of the current spate of Russian meddling investigations. Was this source a product of the CIA’s own efforts, as DNI General Counsel Litt contends, or was this an “echo” of the work done by Steele? The answer may lie in the actions of both Elias and Steele, who in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, and on the heels of the statement by DNI Clapper that he wasn’t ready to commit to Russian attribution, shared the first two reports with both the FBI and members of the intelligence community. Steele also sat down with U.S. officials to discuss the details of these reports, which presumably included the sourcing that was used.
The parallels between the information contained in the initial report filed by Steele and the “bombshell” intelligence that prompted Brennan’s decision to brief the Gang of Eight are too close to be casually dismissed. Of particular note is Steele’s “Source C,” a senior Russian “financial official” who had “overheard Putin talking” on at least two occasions. Was this the source that Brennan cited when it came to Putin’s “specific instructions”? The cause and effect relationship between the decision by Marc Elias to brief U.S. intelligence officials on the aspects of the Steele Dossier, and Brennan’s coming into possession of intelligence that virtually mirrors the reporting by Steele, cannot be dismissed out of hand.
The future of the Trump presidency will be determined by the various investigations currently underway. Those efforts have been influenced, in one way or another, by reporting sourced to Perkins Coie, including the designation of Russia as the responsible party behind the DNC cyber-breach and the Steele Dossier. These investigations are linked in their unquestioning embrace of the conclusions set forth in the 2017 Russia Intelligence Community Assessment that Russia was, in fact, meddling in the election. However, the genesis of that finding, both in terms of Russian involvement in the DNC hack and the “bombshell” intelligence introduced by Brennan in August 2016, has gone largely unquestioned by the investigators.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).