During the past two weeks, the congressional committees conducting Russia investigations were active in interviewing witnesses and requesting documents and information, most notably from other arms of the government. One of the most intriguing news items about the Russia investigations, however, relates to the controversial dossier written by a former British spy which contains assertions of deep connections between President Trump and the Kremlin, including the latter’s involvement in Trump’s candidacy and the 2016 election. The dossier has been a focus of some Republican committee members for some time, and according to a recent CNN report it has also been of interest to the special counsel: Mueller met with the dossier’s author Christopher Steele over the summer, and earlier in the year the US intelligence community had reportedly corroborated at least some of the dossier’s contents but elected to keep their findings private. More on this below.
DoJ & Special Counsel
The news of special counsel Mueller’s meeting with Christopher Steele was an important development in the publicly available information about the Russia investigations; Steele’s dossier has long been a mysterious piece of the Russian election interference puzzle, given its lack of official corroboration–or invalidation–by the intelligence community, and its variously specific claims, ranging from meetings between certain campaign officials and Russian operatives and what issues were discussed to salacious accounts of Trump’s physical escapades during visits to Moscow. Here is a link to the dossier, which is a collection of memos detailing connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Steele was initially commissioned by the Washington political research firm Fusion GPS to collect opposition research on Trump, and until the Republican nomination the project was funded by Trump’s GOP opponents. According to recent reports, the FBI and US intelligence community originally took the contents of the dossier seriously–as they included criminal activity on behalf of the Trump campaign–and reportedly corroborated at least some of the dossier’s allegations, specifically those regarding meetings and communications between Trump and Kremlin affiliates, as well as Steele’s broader conclusion that the Russian government had run a multifaceted campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election and the public perception of American politics and democracy. Incidentally, some of the Russian financiers mentioned in the dossier for their involvement with the Trump campaign have sued Fusion GPS and its founder for libel; Trump campaign affiliates that were also implicated by the dossier, including the President’s personal attorney, have also publicly refuted the dossier’s contents. The FBI, CIA, and Director of National Intelligence reportedly debated whether to include parts of the dossier in their January report about Russian election interference, but decided against it because doing so would compel them to disclose to Congress and other more public branches of government the specific parts of the dossier that they had corroborated, which could supposedly threaten the integrity of their sources and methods. It was decided that the FBI–then directed by James Comey–would brief the incoming president on the contents of the dossier and other intelligence gathered on Russian election interference; Comey was reportedly apprehensive about briefing Trump, as he feared the new president would view the dossier as an FBI attempt to hold leverage over him. Reports and the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing (which have since been revealed) indicate that that is indeed what happened. Steele, whom congressional investigators have been trying to track down for months, reportedly met with Mueller to discuss the dossier sometime in the past few months. The Senate Intelligence Committee and others have also called for interviews with Steele. Since the overall veracity of the dossier is still hotly contended, the ramifications of Mueller’s meeting are unclear, as are the specifics; it is possible that the special counsel’s investigation has either corroborated or discredited parts of the dossier, or that Mueller sought more information or context from the source. What news of the meeting does suggest is that Steele and his dossier will remain a controversial–and for now inscrutable–part of the Russia investigations over the coming months.
In other special counsel news, the IRS is reportedly sharing information and records with Mueller regarding Trump campaign associates, notably Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who have both been under investigation for financial crimes. The IRS information reportedly includes tax documents as well as real estate and banking records. The Hill notes that IRS information is heavily restricted and inter-agency sharing usually requires a grand jury subpoena, which Mueller may have obtained in order to access the records.
Senate Intelligence Committee
Last week, Senate Intelligence Committee leaders Richard Burr and Mark Warner gave a highly anticipated press conference on the status of their Russia investigation. They described their conclusion–which echoes the findings of the broader intelligence community–that the Russian government had conducted a broad campaign which included propaganda and cyber attacks in order to influence the 2016 election, and warned future political campaigns and electoral administrators that Russia would continue to interfere with American politics if left unchecked. The senators said their committee is still investigating the issue of collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign, but attempted to distinguish their findings regarding known Russian actions during the election and emphasize the gravity of that interference and the importance of addressing the threat it poses to our political system. Burr and Warner also praised social media companies’ recent cooperation with investigators and stressed the importance of corporate responsibility for uncovering and addressing damaging Russian-backed content on their platforms. The Senate Intelligence Committee will hold an open hearing in November–their House counterpart plans to do the same–to discuss the role of social media in the election, and has invited Facebook, Twitter, and Google representatives to testify.
On the subject of social media’s role in Russian election meddling, there have been some important developments. Recent reports trace the Russian-bought ads and Russian-run pages and groups on Facebook to a Russian propaganda company called the Internet Research Agency. This firm was reportedly linked to 470 Facebook pages and profiles, which in turn had purchased 3000 politically divisive ads prior to and during the election. The pages and profiles themselves covered a diverse range of issues and interests, ostensibly intended to attract the attention of many different types of social media users and to spread disinformation and polarizing content across multiple fronts. Twitter also uncovered evidence suggesting that the Internet Research Agency had been linked to disinformation-spreading activities on its platform as well, and the company has been criticized by committee members for its relative inaction regarding the findings and the broader Russia investigation. Another recent report suggests that as many as 25% of the Facebook ads linked to Russia had been geographically targeting specific states and regions, especially socially and politically contentious areas of the country. Facebook had previously given a large sampling of the Russian-backed content it found to the congressional intelligence committees, both of whom have kept the findings classified but have expressed interest in potentially making a sampling of the content public–with Facebook’s consent–in order to help users identify fake news and prevent future foreign propagandizing. Facebook itself has pledged to continue reinforcing its ad policy and tracking measures to prevent the spread of dangerous false content, and other social media sites have taken similar steps after coming under scrutiny for the discovery of Russian propagandized content on their platforms. The Senate Intelligence Committee has reportedly discussed investigating Reddit as well; research indicates that the social media-sharing company also played a role in spreading fake news around the internet, which potentially came from Russian sources. Google announced last week that it was conducting an internal investigation into whether its ads or services were also used by Russian operatives, and the Washington Post recently reported that Google has indeed found evidence confirming that the company’s products–including YouTube, Gmail, and its extensive search and ad networks–had been used to spread false information linked to Russian agents. Notably, Google’s findings do not trace back to the Internet Research Agency, indicating that Russian cyber-intervention occurred not just on multiple online platforms, but also originated from multiple Russian government-affiliated sources.
House Intelligence Committee
Last week the House Intelligence Committee held an interview for controversial Trump affiliate Roger Stone, a vehement denier of Trump campaign collusion. Stone has an interesting background with Russian interests and was vocal about his connections during the campaign; he revealed his ties to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, and has publicly described his communications with WikiLeaks prior to the site’s dump of hacked Clinton campaign emails–he had also previously called on Russia to hack the Clinton campaign. Stone also claimed he had communicated with the suspected Russian hacker of the DNC, Guccifer2.0. Prior to his interview, Stone had tried to publicize his appearance with Congress, repeatedly calling for a public hearing instead of a private interview. After his interview Stone said that the meeting had been civil and productive, although he had refused to answer one line of the committee’s questioning; Committee members wouldn’t comment on the content of their questions, but Stone told reporters that he had remained quiet on the subject of his relationship with WikiLeaks and his means of communication with the site and its founder. Ranking Democrat Adam Schiff said that the Committee will consider a subpoena to compel Stone to return and answer those questions.
The House Intelligence Committee’s investigation has also had a contentious response to the Steele dossier, with Committee Republicans–including recused chairman Devin Nunes–focusing strongly on the dossier and even trying to track down Steele, in what seems like either an attempt to shift focus away from more tangible evidence, or to use the dossier’s more extreme allegations to undermine both the dossier and the Russia investigation itself. Nunes has butted heads with the DoJ after issuing subpoenas for information related to the dossier, to which the department did not respond. Nunes then threatened to subpoena AG Jeff Sessions and FBI director Christopher Wray to testify at a hearing which had been scheduled for last week, seemingly without the initial knowledge or consent of his Committee. The Committee then postponed the hearing, reportedly due to a timely meeting between Nunes and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein to discuss Nunes’ requests. Nunes’ activity in the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation has been secretive and divisive, and his continued involvement after his recusal is widely seen as an ongoing attempt to undermine the investigation and shift focus from the Trump administration. To his credit, the Committee’s investigation has been at times overtaken by partisanship, deceit, dispute, and scandal, and its work has not been taken as seriously by the government or the public as have the other congressional Russia investigations.
Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee has reached an agreement to subpoena Paul Manafort for both documents and testimony at a public hearing. Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking Democrat Diane Feinstein told reporters they are still working out details but plan to issue the subpoenas in the near future. Manafort had previously made a deal with the Committee to provide documents and a private interview in exchange for not appearing publicly–Donald Trump Jr made the same deal–but reportedly stopped communicating with the Committee after the special counsel began to aggressively investigate him. Committee members have expressed their frustration at Manafort’s lack of cooperation, and hope the subpoenas will propel their investigation, although it’s not clear whether the special counsel will object to Manafort appearing before Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee has repeatedly been at odds with Mueller over investigative jurisdiction, information sharing, and rights to overtly pursue leads that the special counsel has been investigating in secrecy.
In addition to the special counsel, the Committee has also clashed with the DoJ on similar terms, making the case that more than any 0ther congressional investigation theirs has jurisdictional oversight over DoJ affairs. Recently, Grassley and Feinstein wrote a letter to CIA director Mike Pompeo, calling for the CIA to give them Russia-related information which had already been given to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Politico reported last week that the Judiciary Committee’s request had been denied by the CIA, adding to an already tense relationship between the Committee and the rest of the intelligence community.
Finally, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Grassley has called on the FBI to explain its use and potential verification of the Steele dossier as part of its intelligence-gathering on Russia. Grassley is concerned that the FBI relied too heavily on information which was disseminated within the global intelligence community by Steele’s research and was otherwise unverified. Since the FBI takes strong precautions to not expose the sources and methods of its intelligence-gathering it is unlikely that Grassley’s request will be met, but the US intelligence community’s use of the dossier may pose an interesting quandary in terms of the verification of its contents.
This blog was written by Stella Jordan. If you have comments on this blog, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.