DEVELOPING: Investigators have learned that Obama CIA Director John Brennan ran a secret task force out of Langley with its own separate budget to investigate Trump campaign and alleged ties to Russia. Task force set up before FBI officially launched its own probe on 07/31/16.
10:17 PM · Sep 7, 2020
Former CIA analyst Larry Johnson echoed those ideas, pointing out that a CIA task force would not have been "appropriate or lawful."
At the time--which was about a week ago--I responded, in somewhat scatterfire fashion:
I'm skeptical of this tweet--the essential content of which is not new--for several reasons.
The first is that, as stated, the whole idea of a CIA task force targeting a US Person residing within the US for ties to a foreign country is too transparently illegal to be probable.
This interagency task force would have simply been each agency contributing its supposed knowledge re Russian targeting of the 2016 election, and possibly Brennan's official cover for egging the FBI on to take its own official action: opening investigations as only the FBI can do.
My guess, however, is that it wasn't a specifically "Trump" TF but instead a "Russian meddling task force" with other agencies--mostly FBI--involved to cover over any illegality. The FBI could be said to be handling domestic aspects.
Neither Sperry nor Johnson are, to my knowledge, lawyers, so they failed to draw the proper distinctions. As a result, Sperry's readers were left with the impression that the "task force" was a CIA entity. Again, for Brennan to have set up a CIA task force focused on a US citizen was "too transparently illegal to be probable." The FBI would never have stood for CIA trespassing and Brennan is too smart to get caught out in something so clearly illegal.
Yesterday afternoon commenter Brad Crawford brought a twitter thread by Fool Nelson to my attention. I tend to be a bit cautious with some of the speculation that goes on at this site, but I found this thread to be incisive. By examining the material that Fool Nelson brings together we can come to a better understanding of Brennan's role in the Russia Hoax, as well as an understanding of some of the issues Durham may be looking at with regard to the CIA.
To begin with, as I indicated, Sperry's tweet doesn't document anything that's particularly new. Brennan himself told the House intel committee (HPSCI) about his interagency "task force" shortly after Team Mueller was set up:
According to @JohnBrennan's May 23, 2017 @HouseIntel testimony, he set up a "fusion cell" of experts from the CIA, NSA, and FBI "to assess Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. Presidential election".
Kudos go to Fool Nelson for digging up that tidbit--the documentation for the Russia Hoax investigation is by now so voluminous that keeping track of it all is increasingly difficult. Nevertheless, on strictly a priori grounds, this was the obvious administrative solution for the USIC. If they wanted an "anti-Trump task force" it would need to be done exactly the way Brennan did it, to conceal--at least for purposes of the criminal law--the appearance of political motivations. The "fusion cell" didn't formally target Trump. Rather, it targeted "the Russians" and their "attempts to interfere in the U.S. Presidential election".
Thus, Fool Nelson explains:
Brennan's narrative during this hearing is that he was "aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian Officials and US persons involved in the Trump Campaign", leading him to create the fusion cell and Intel sharing with the FBI.
If that's true, then Brennan's actions were perfectly proper. If it's not true, then how do you prove that it wasn't all the product of an honest, perhaps overzealous, mistake? That's the classic Brennan modus operandi. And it's the difficult-to-disprove defense that Durham is up against.
The "fusion cell", we learn, "stood down" in mid-November, 2016. Or at least that's what Brennan told Devin Nunes. That may have been true in a formal sense, but as we'll see the spirit of the "fusion cell" actually lived on in an only slightly different form.
But, you ask, what was the justification for the "fusion cell" in the first place? Here I over simplify, because we are forced to rely on hints and suggestions from public sources, rather than official documents. Those public sources may conceal the agendas and narratives of government and Deep State officials, so we have to take them for what they're worth.
The first source is Paul Wood, whom Fool Nelson characterizes as an "MI6/Steele mouthpiece." Wood wrote an article for BBC News dated January 12, 2017--so, a week or so after the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) came out--that purported to explain the origins of the "fusion cell". You have to wade through a lot of extraneous Steele related tittle tattle about Trump in Moscow to get to the real nub:
Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. It was - allegedly - a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.
It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence taskforce was created.
Pretty straightforward, if short on detail. However, as Fool Nelson points out, there's something about that dating of April, 2016, that may be significant. That puts the triggering conversation just weeks after Paul Manafort--with all his Ukrainian connections--joined the Trump campaign.
In October, 2017, Team Mueller shared some of Manafort's emails with the rabidly anti-Trump The Atlantic, and thus with the world. It seems that as soon as Manafort joined the Trump campaign he began trying to leverage his new position of influence to "get whole" with Oleg Deripaska, whom he owed a considerable amount of money. As The Atlantic reports:
On the evening of April 11, 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump hired the political consultant Paul Manafort to lead his campaign’s efforts to wrangle Republican delegates, Manafort emailed his old lieutenant Konstantin Kilimnik, who had worked for him for a decade in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
“I assume you have shown our friends my media coverage, right?” Manafort wrote.
“Absolutely,” Kilimnik responded a few hours later from Kiev. “Every article.”
“How do we use to get whole,” Manafort asks. “Has OVD operation seen?”
According to a source close to Manafort, the initials “OVD” refer to Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and one of Russia’s richest men. The source also confirmed that one of the individuals repeatedly mentioned in the email exchange as an intermediary to Deripaska is an aide to the oligarch.
The emails were provided to The Atlantic on condition of anonymity. They are part of a trove of documents turned over by lawyers for Trump’s presidential campaign to investigators looking into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. A source close to Manafort confirmed their authenticity. Excerpts from these emails were first reported by The Washington Post, but the full text of these exchanges, provided to The Atlantic, shows that Manafort attempted to leverage his leadership role in the Trump campaign to curry favor with a Russian oligarch close to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Manafort was deeply in debt, and did not earn a salary from the Trump campaign.
What was the purpose of the leak to The Atlantic, besides raising the question of why no effort was made to warn Trump of the seamy side of Manafort's Ukraine ties? In point of fact, as soon as Trump got an inkling of Manafort's self dealing Manafort was out the door (we won't go into the truth of those inklings):
Manafort was ousted from the Trump campaign later that month, following a New York Times report that Manafort’s name was listed in a secret ledger of cash payments from the ruling pro-Russian party in Ukraine, and detailing his failed venture with Deripaska. He submitted his resignation on August 19. [We leave aside the tendentiousness of the characterization: "pro-Russian party."]
Perhaps the leak was an attempt to put some flesh on the threadbare narrative that emerged immediately in the wake of Brennan's testimony before HPSCI, as spread through the NYT the day after Brennan's performance:
American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Donald J. Trump through his advisers, according to three current and former American officials familiar with the intelligence.
The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael T. Flynn, a retired general who was advising Mr. Trump, the officials said. Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials, who appeared confident that each could be used to help shape Mr. Trump’s opinions on Russia.See how that works? Michael Flynn has "indirect ties to Russian officials" so the obvious next step is to open an investigation on Flynn as a Russian agent. Who would ever be so silly as to, say, interview Flynn about those "indirect ties"--whatever that actually means.
Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr. Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr. Manafort.
The intelligence was among the clues — which also included information about direct communications between Mr. Trump’s advisers and Russian officials — that American officials received last year as they began investigating Russian attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of Mr. Trump’s associates were assisting Moscow in the effort. Details of the conversations, some of which have not been previously reported, add to an increasing understanding of the alarm inside the American government last year about the Russian disruption campaign.
The information collected last summer was considered credible enough for intelligence agencies to pass to the F.B.I., which during that period opened a counterintelligence investigation that is continuing. It is unclear, however, whether Russian officials actually tried to directly influence Mr. Manafort and Mr. Flynn. Both have denied any collusion with the Russian government on the campaign to disrupt the election.
John O. Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., testified Tuesday about a tense period last year when he came to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was trying to steer the outcome of the election. He said he saw intelligence suggesting that Russia wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help in that effort. He spoke vaguely about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, without giving names, saying they “raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
Was the leak to The Atlantic an attempt--at a point in time when Team Mueller already knew that there was "no there", no collusion, "there" in its witchhunt--to gin up some credibility to connect to Brennan's vague references to nameless "Russian officials"? By providing some names--the Ukraine based Konstantin Kilimnik and Viktor Boyarkin, an aide to Oleg Deripaska? Was Team Mueller hoping that this leak could somehow force Trump into submitting to a "perjury trap" interview that would actually focus on "obstruction"?
If so, it represents a significant comedown from the type of articles that were circulating in the first months of the Trump administration. For example, as early as February 14, 2016, the NYT was trumpeting:
"[M]embers of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials" claimed the NYT.
It's instructive to reread some of those stories to refresh one's recollection of just how unhinged it all was. Unhinged--and fake, as it turned out. From collusion with "senior Russian intelligence officials" to conversations with ... a Ukrainian politician who also speaks with an aide to a wealthy Russian who knows Putin? Not exactly the stuff that will validate a hoax.
However, of note is the fact that the NYT story does appear to connect to the April, 2016, intercept from a Baltic country. Paul Manafort is explicitly named, and the date referred to is
"around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee."
Signficantly, that places the intercepts before the intelligence Brennan claims to have handcarried to the White House on July 28, 2016. It also demonstrates a consistent attempt at a narrative--a narrative that began in early 2016 but was/is still looking for validation.
Of further interest is the fact that this narrative of Trump aides communicating with Russian intelligence officers (RIOs) is continued in the Senate intel committee's report, by claiming an intelligence affiliation for Kilimnik and Boyarkin. It begins to look like coordination--still ongoing:
SSCI's RIO designation of Kilimnik and Boyarkin, besides giving cover to Brennan, also served the purpose of validating various news articles starting from February 2017.
The problem with the entire narrative is that at the same time that the NYT was making these baseless assertions in a series of inflammatory and false articles, fed to them by "four current and former American officials," Peter Strzok was texting and emailing FBI colleagues making obvious references to what he believed were CIA--and presumably Brennan inspired--leaks:
Strzok texted bureau colleague Lisa Page on Dec. 15, 2016, [when Brennan was still at the CIA]: "Think our sisters have begun leaking like mad. Scorned and worried and political, they're kicking in to overdrive."
Strzok's email to FBI colleagues on April 13, 2017, when he wrote that an unidentified "agency" might be the "source of some of the leaks" to the media that he'd been seeing.
"I'm beginning to think the agency got info a lot earlier than we thought and hasn't shared it completely with us," Strzok wrote, according to documents that the senators included in their letter to the ICIG. "Might explain all these weird/seemingly incorrect leads all these media folks have. Would also highlight agency as a source of some of the leaks."
That's NOT an "unidentified agency". In LE/Intel circles the CIA is simply referred to as "the Agency", just as the FBI is referred to as "the Bureau." Strzok knows where the leaks are coming from.
Most tellingly, Strzok subjected the February 14, 2017, NYT article to a withering analysis that he sent around to colleagues and superiors. Given that Strzok is blaming the CIA for all these leaks, his analysis--well worth quoting--is a direct attack on the Russia Hoax collusion narrative that Brennan had been flogging around DC for the better part of a years by then:
Mr. Strzok, who was fired for his anti-Trump texts, wrote 15 Times story comments, including:
On the lead paragraph, “This statement is misleading and inaccurate as written. We have not seen evidence of any individuals affiliated with the Trump team in contact with IOs [intelligence officers].”
On the second paragraph, which said U.S. intelligence began collecting Trump-Russia intercepts in the spring, “We do not know nor can we figure out what this means or where it might be coming from (i.e. something we can identify as a source of misunderstanding.)”
On the paragraph that said former campaign manager Paul Manafort was picked up on calls to Russian intelligence, “We are unaware of any calls with any Russian government official in which Manafort was a party.”
On the story saying FBI has banking records, “We do not yet have detailed banking records.”
On they story saying in subsequent paragraphs there were lots of contacts, “Again, we are unaware of ANY Trump advisors engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.”
On The New York Times assertion that the National Security Agency intercepted Russian-Trump aides calls, “If they did we are not aware of those communications.”
Mr. Comey checked with NSA after he read the story and was told there were no such intercepts.
What we appear to be seeing in all this is that, while Brennan and his close aides may have been on the same "get Trump" page as Comey and his top management, the two organizations were each wed to their own sources. The FBI, in spite of obvious flashing alarm signals, clung to Chris Steele and his "dossier," while Brennan was infatuated with his own sources.
And in that regard Fool Nelson links to a lengthy account of what appears to have been Brennan's primary source for his big picture conspiracy theory. The account is by Scott Ritter--The Spy Who Walked Away: Oleg Smolenkov’s role as a CIA asset and the use of his data by the director of the CIA to cast doubt over the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The article, which I highly recommend, is far too long to summarize here. It covers Smolenkov's entire career as a (supposed?) CIA mole inside the Russian government--from his (supposed?) recruitment to his eventual "exfiltration" and resettlement in Virginia. Obviously I'm not in a position to confirm the entire article, but to me it hangs together to present a compelling picture that fits with what we know from other sources.
Here are some relevant highlights.
Smolenkov was recruited while stationed in DC, no later than 2008. At that time he was working in a low level position and was openly unhappy with his situation. Upon his return to Moscow, however, he advanced rapidly. He quickly found a position working for a close adviser to Putin.
However, at about the same time (2013), the CIA experienced catastrophic failures in its entire overseas spying operations. Think about this:
First, the CIA’s internet-based covert communications system, ..., had been globally compromised. Smolenkov had been trained on this system, and it provided his lifeline to the CIA. The compromise first occurred in Iran, and then spread to China; in both countries, entire networks of CIA agents were rounded up, with many being subsequently executed. China is believed to have shared the information on how to detect the covert communication-linked web pages with Russia.
Not only that, but beginning two years earlier (2011), the Russian FSB began regularly identifying and expelling CIA case officers stationed in Moscow:
In the fall of 2011, the CIA’s chief of station in Moscow, Steven Hall, had been approached by his counterpart in the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, Russia’s equivalent of the FBI) and warned that the CIA should stop trying to recruit agents from within the FSB ranks; the FSB had detected several of these attempts, which it deemed inappropriate given the ongoing cooperation between the intelligence services of the two countries regarding the war on terrorism.
Go figure, huh? Who do the Russians think they are?
The CIA ignored the warning and continued trying to recruit Russians, with disastrous results: More and more CIA officers exposed and expelled. And this situation continued to the end of the Obama administration. The question--one of several possibilities--is: During this period could Smolenkov have been identified by the FSB as a CIA asset and turned back against the CIA as a double agent? Consider this:
Moscow Station’s string of bad luck continued into 2016, ...
The FSB indicated, at the time these two officers were being expelled, that it had evicted three other CIA officers during the year. In addition to the decimation of its staff, Moscow Station was experiencing an alarming number of its agents being discovered by the FSB and arrested. While the Russians were circumspect about most of these cases, on several occasions they indicated that they had uncovered a spy by intercepting the electronic communications between him and the CIA. This meant that the Russians were aware of, and actively pursuing, the Google-based internet-based system used by the CIA to communicate with its agents in Russia.
Meanwhile, Smolenkov continued to send his reports to his CIA handlers unabated, using the same internet-based system. Under normal circumstances, an exception to compromise would raise red flags within the counterintelligence staff that evaluated an agent’s reporting and activity. But by the summer of 2016, nothing about the work of the CIA, and in particular the Europe and Eurasia Mission Center could be considered “normal” when it came to the Russian target.
Meanwhile, back in Langley, in 2013, Brennan had come up with a reorganization of CIA intelligence operations. A seemingly highly qualified official was put in charge of all Russian operations. His duties included all aspects of handling Smolenkov--communications, tasking, vetting of reports, etc. We'll never know how that might have worked out with regard to the Russia Hoax, whether a sober analysis might have led to a balanced assessment. That's because Brennan personally took over the management of election related matters with regard to Russia--including the handling of Smolenkov. Normal operations were circumvented. To do this Brennan formed that "fusion cell" or "task force" we've heard so much about:
Sometime in early August 2016, [John Brennan] arrived at the White House carrying a plain, unmarked white envelope. Inside was an intelligence report from Smolenkov that CIA Director Brennan considered to be so sensitive that he kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restrictive process was too inclusive to adequately protect the source. The intelligence was to be read by four people only — Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. The document was to be returned to the courier once it had been read.
The contents of the report were alarming--Putin had personally ordered the cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential election in favor of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. [I know. You want to know why Obama didn't demand that the FBI take physical custody of the DNC server. Ask John Brennan.]
The intelligence report was not a product of Clement’s Europe and Eurasia Mission Center, but rather a special unit of handpicked analysts from the CIA, NSA and FBI who were brought together under great secrecy in late July and reported directly to Brennan. These analysts were made to sign non-disclosure agreements protecting their work from their colleagues.
According to Ritter, this report genuinely alarmed Obama. Whatever the real case, it marked a complete departure from normal business at the CIA. We don't know exactly when Brennan injected himself into the handling of Smolenkov. Was it shortly after the April report from that Baltic country? We don't know, but that possibility raises an important question: If Brennan took the Baltic reporting seriously, did that lead him to task Smolenkov specifically with regard to the upcoming election? The significance of this possibility is pointed out by Ritter:
It is not publicly known what prompted the report from Smolenkov which Brennan found so alarming. Was it received out of the blue, a target of opportunity which Smolenkov exploited? Was it based upon a specific tasking submitted by Smolenkov’s CIA handlers in response to a tasking from above? Or was it a result of the intervention of the CIA director, who tasked Smolenkov outside normal channels? In any event, once Brennan created his special analytical unit, Smolenkov became his dedicated source. If Smolenko was in this for the money, as appears to be the case, he would have been motivated to come up with the “correct” answer to Brennan’s tasking for information on Putin’s role. By late 2016, Western media had made quite clear what kind of answer Brennan wanted.
Every intelligence report produced by a controlled asset is subjected to a counterintelligence review where it is examined for any evidence of red flags that could be indicative of compromise. One red flag is the issue of abnormal access. Smolenkov did not normally have direct contact with Putin, if ever. His intelligence reports would have been written from the perspective of the distant observer. His report about Putin’s role in interfering in the 2016 election, however, represented a whole new level of access and trust. Under normal circumstances, a report exhibiting such tendency would be pulled aside for additional scrutiny; if the report was alarming enough, the CIA might order the agent to be subjected to a polygraph to ensure he had not been compromised.
This did not happen. Instead, Brennan took the extraordinary measure of sequestering the source from the rest of the Intelligence Community.
Now, recall that the "fusion cell" "stood down" in mid-November, 2016. However, as I said, it lived on in spirit. That spirit was embodied in the interagency analytical group that wrote up the ICA in the first week of 2017. The ICA's endorsement of the Russia Hoax--Russia meddled to get Trump elected--has formed the basis for most public discussion ever since. Virtually everyone who speaks on the matter takes as a given that Russia really did "meddle" and that the meddling was at the personal direction of Vladimir Putin.
In this we see the hand of Smolenkov and Brennan:
The 2016 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) was produced differently — no Mission Center involvement, no NIO assigned, no peer review. Just Brennan’s little band of sequestered analysts.
Smolenkov’s information took top billing in the ICA, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” published on Jan. 6, 2017. “We assess,” the unclassified document stated, “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Smolenkov’s reporting appears to be the sole source for this finding.
And the evidence for that influence campaign is, where exactly? But you can imagine the amount of work that Durham has put into sorting all this out. What was behind Brennan's circumvention of normal procedures and safeguards, especially with regard to Smolenkov? How was the "fusion cell" staffed and, especially, what instructions did they receive? Who was responsible for the leaks, filled with disinformation?
Ritter concludes--but at considerable length--with the rest of Smolenkov's story: his firing, his exfiltration from Russia, and his extraordinary handling and resettling in Virginia:
Normally a defector would be subjected to a debriefing, inclusive of a polygraph, to confirm that he or she had not been turned into a double agent. Smolenkov had, over the course of a decade of spying, accumulated a considerable amount of money which the CIA was holding in escrow. This money would be released to Smolenkov upon the successful completion of his debriefing. In the case of Smolenkov, however, there doesn’t seem to have been a detailed, lengthy debriefing. His money was turned over to him. Sometime in June 2018, Smolenkov and his wife bought a home worth nearly $1 million in northern Virginia. The couple used their real names. They were not afraid.
Right. Smolenkov had apparently never heard of Sergei Skripal.
Ritter then speculates on various possibilities regarding Smolenkov, all centering on the possibility that Smolenkov was either controlled by Russian intelligence or manufactured his reporting to suit the predilections of John Brennan. I leave that to the reader, observing only the extremely vague and--as it developed--utterly unreliable character of much of the "intelligence" that Brennan has purveyed to the nation, through voluminous leaks.
Finally. I was struck when read Ritter's account of the CIA's Moscow disasters during the period 2011 to 2016, in which agents were lost and CIA officers expelled for attempting to recruit FSB officers. What struck me was the comparison to events during the same period in New York City. It was during that period that a former CIA asset--Carter Page--helped the FBI make a case against Russian IOs. One of the charges brought against the Russians was that they attempted to recruit Page. In the big picture of US-Russian intel relations during those years, I believe that this case--which might seem rather nickel-dime to most of us, since it didn't involve classified information--held great importance for the FBI and CIA. It was part of getting a bit of payback against the Russians, who were eating the CIA's lunch otherwise. For the FBI, it provided additional prestige as an example of effectively dealing with Russian intel here in the US. For that reason, I'm quite sure that Carter Page was well known to FBIHQ.