Renowned British author continues his success with writing novels about Putin’s KGB style of leadership and #Russiagate. Harding is a strong supporter of Chris Steele and the credibility of his dossier delivered to the FBI, intelligence communities, Democrats and in the end John McCain.
The inside story of how a former British spy was hired to investigate Russia’s influence on Trump – and uncovered explosive evidence that Moscow had been cultivating Trump for years. By Luke Harding
Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.
One of their specialities is breaking into Moscow apartments. The owners are always away, of course. The KGB leave a series of clues – stolen shoes, women’s tights knotted together, cigarette butts stomped out and left demonstratively on the floor. Or a surprise turd in the toilet, waiting in grim ambush. The message, crudely put, is this: we are the masters here! We can do what the fuck we please!
Back then, the KGB kept watch on all foreigners, especially American and British ones. The UK mission in Moscow was under close observation. The British embassy was a magnificent mansion built in the 1890s by a rich sugar merchant, on the south bank of the Moskva river. It looked directly across to the Kremlin. The view was dreamy: a grand palace, golden church domes and medieval spires topped with revolutionary red stars.
Continued below the fold …. A long read!
One of those the KGB routinely surveilled was a 27-year-old diplomat, newly married to his wife, Laura, on his first foreign posting, and working as a second secretary in the chancery division. In this case, their suspicions were right.
The “diplomat” was a British intelligence officer. His workplace was a grand affair: chandeliers, mahogany-panelled reception rooms, gilt-framed portraits of the Queen and other royals hanging from the walls. His desk was in the embassy library, surrounded by ancient books. The young officer’s true employer was an invisible entity back in London – SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
His name was Christopher Steele. Years later, he would be commissioned to undertake an astonishing secret investigation. It was an explosive assignment: to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to Donald Trump. Steele’s findings, and the resulting dossier, would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.
If fiery patriotism vs. privacy debates and questions about where allegiances lie sound like something you’d be interested in, chime in on the case of Edward Snowden. See his book The Snowdon Files.
Harding has reported on not only the NSA and WikiLeaks, but also covered foreign affairs in Delhi, Berlin and Moscow as well as the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. His work has garnered interest from both sides of his investigations; in 2011 he was denied entry to Russia and immediately deported due to his less than favourable coverage of Russian Mafia and Putin. This is detailed in his book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia.
What gives Luke Harding his first hand knowledge? During his tenure as Moscow Bureau Chief at The Guardian, NPR Books writes that Harding had “Russian agents follow him, tap his phone and repeatedly break into his home.” “I almost feel like I could write the KGB handbook, I lived it for quite a long time,” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross for NPR Books.
Where’s the Collusion Luke?
Chris Steele, well regarded by British and US intelligence, used same sources in 2014 when reporting on the Ukraine to the John Kerry State Department and Vicky Nuland.
LUKE HARDING: But I think one point, which is kind of very important on the sources, is that I’ve talked to friends of Steele’s. And what they point out is that these sources were not new. They’re not people that he kind of discovered yesterday. They are trusted contacts who essentially had proven themselves in other areas.
So for example, not many people kind of knew this – this is kind of a new aspect to my book – but Steele wrote more than a hundred reports after 2014 about the war in Ukraine – about what Russia was doing, about its sort of covert movement of tanks and troops, about its sort of strategic objectives. And these were well-received by U.S. intelligence. They were sent up the chain. They were circulated within the State Department. And they were, I was told, read by John Kerry and Victoria Nuland, who was the assistant secretary of state in charge for Europe at the time in the Obama administration.
In other words, the sources who were right on Ukraine were behind the Trump dossier. And the FBI knows that. The U.S. intelligence community knows that. And that’s really why they take Steele pretty seriously. I mean, like any intelligence officer, his work is not perfect. He’s not infallible. There may be some errors there. But broadly, I think people in British and American intelligence think the dossier is correct, which means that Donald Trump is compromised.
More from Luke Harding’s book …
[Highlights and links are added by me – Oui]
In Moscow, the spies were staging a comeback. In 1998 Putin became FSB chief, then prime minister, and in 2000, president. By 2002, when Steele left Paris, Putin had consolidated his grip. Most of Russia’s genuine political opposition had been wiped out, from parliament as well as from public life and the evening news. The idea that Russia might slowly turn into a democracy had proved a late-century fantasy. Rather, the US’s traditional nuclear-armed adversary was moving in an authoritarian direction.
At first, George W Bush and Tony Blair viewed Putin as a respectable ally in the war against terror. But he remained an enigma. As Steele knew better than most, obtaining information from inside the presidential administration in Moscow was tough. One former member of the US National Security Council described Putin as a “black box”. “The Brits had slightly better assets than us. We had nothing. No human intelligence,” the source said. And, with the focus on fighting Islamists, Russia was downgraded on the list of US-UK intelligence priorities.
By 2006, Steele held a senior post at MI6’s Russia desk in London. There were ominous signs that Putin was taking Russia in an aggressive direction. The number of hostile Russian agents in the UK grew, surpassing cold war levels. Steele tracked a new campaign of subversion and covert influence.
And in 2009 he had faced a personal tragedy, when his wife died at the age of 43 after a period of illness.
That same year, Steele left MI6 and set up his own business intelligence firm, Orbis, in partnership with another former British spy, Christopher Burrows. The transition from government to the private sector wasn’t easy. Steele and Burrows were pursuing the same intelligence matters as before, but without the support and peer review they had in their previous jobs. MI6’s security branch would often ask an officer to go back to a source, or redraft a report, or remark: “We think it’s interesting. We’d like to have more on this.” This kept up quality and objectivity.
Steele and Burrows, by contrast, were out on their own, where success depended more on one’s own wits. There was no more internal challenge. The people they had to please were corporate clients. The pay was considerably better.
The shabby environs of Orbis’s office in London’s Victoria, where I first met Christopher Steele, were a long way away from Washington DC and the bitterly contested 2016 US presidential election. So how did Steele come to be commissioned to research Donald J Trump and produce his devastating dossier?
At the same moment Steele said goodbye to official spying, another figure was embarking on a new career in the crowded field of private business intelligence. His name was Glenn Simpson. He was a former journalist. Simpson was an alluring figure: a large, tall, angular, bear-like man who slotted himself easily on to a bar stool and enjoyed a beer or two. He was a good-humoured social companion who spoke in a nasal drawl. Behind small, oval glasses was a twinkling intelligence. He excelled at what he did.
Simpson had been an illustrious Wall Street Journal correspondent. Based in Washington and Brussels, he had specialised in post-Soviet murk. He didn’t speak Russian or visit the Russian Federation. This was deemed too dangerous. Instead, from outside the country, he examined the dark intersection between organised crime and the Russian state.
By 2009, Simpson decided to quit journalism, at a time when the media industry was in all sorts of financial trouble. He co-founded his own commercial research and political intelligence firm, based in Washington DC. Its name was Fusion GPS. Its website gave little away. It didn’t even list an address.
Simpson then met Steele. They knew some of the same FBI people and shared expertise on Russia. Fusion and Orbis began a professional partnership. The Washington- and London-based firms worked for oligarchs litigating against other oligarchs. This might involve asset tracing – identifying large sums concealed behind layers of offshore companies.
In late 2015 the British eavesdropping agency GCHQ was carrying out standard “collection” against Moscow targets. These were known Kremlin operatives already on the grid. Nothing unusual here – except that the Russians were talking to people associated with Trump. The precise nature of these exchanges has not been made public, but according to sources in the US and the UK, they formed a suspicious pattern. They continued through the first half of 2016. The intelligence was handed to the US as part of a routine sharing of information.
The FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of these contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow. This was in part due to institutional squeamishness – the law prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of US citizens without a warrant.
But the electronic intelligence suggested Steele was right. According to one account, the US agencies looked as if they were asleep. “‘Wake up! There’s something not right here!’ – the BND [German intelligence], the Dutch, the French and SIS were all saying this,” one Washington-based source told me.
That summer, GCHQ’s then head, Robert Hannigan, flew to the US to personally brief CIA chief John Brennan. The matter was deemed so important that it was handled at “director level”, face-to-face between the two agency chiefs. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, later confirmed the “sensitive” stream of intelligence from Europe. After a slow start, Brennan used the GCHQ information and other tip-offs to launch a major inter-agency investigation. Meanwhile, the FBI was receiving disturbing warnings from Steele.
At this point, Steele’s Fusion material was unpublished. Whatever the outcome of the election, it raised grave questions about Russian interference and the US democratic process. There was, Steele felt, overwhelming public interest in passing his findings to US investigators. The US’s multiple intelligence agencies had the resources to prove or disprove his discoveries. He realised that these allegations were, as he put it to a friend, a “radioactive hot potato”. He anticipated a hesitant response, at least at first.
Read on …
Before the turbulent overthrow of the Yanakovich regime in Kiev of February 2014 …
The Interpreter: Marina Litvinenko has described the coroner’s decision to uphold Foreign Secretary William Hague’s application to withhold evidence allegedly demonstrating the involvement of the Russian government in her late husband’s death as an act of “sabotage.” What is your take on this?
Luke Harding: I think Marina is right. There is no other way of interpreting this kind of ruling other than as an act of sabotage by William Hague and David Cameron. It seems to me, and indeed to everyone, that the Russian state was involved, and yet six years on we have an inquest and we have the foreign secretary saying all the secret evidence the government has that supports this conclusion won’t be made public, against a background of increasingly friendly relations between Hague and Sergei Lavrov — and also Putin and Cameron ten days ago, with Cameron extolling Putin’s constructive stance on Syria.
All foreign relations are realpolitik and moralpolitik—the need to stay true to core values and also to deal with nasty states. But with the Tory party convulsed over Europe, this is quite appalling; and shamelessly the coalition has decided to do a deal with the Kremlin rather than see justice done for the Litvinenkos.
You don’t have to be mystic mog to know what would happen if the evidence all came out— a Russian state-sponsored assassination proven in court would have a negative response from Putin and harm UK-Russian trade interests.
What I’m intrigued by is: What did Putin offer? He thinks everyone has their price. This whole thing about intelligence cooperation: It was still tit-for-tat in 2007 because the Kremlin revused to extradite [suspected assassin, now Duma deputy Andrei] Lugovoy. It was a hysterical atmosphere. What [former Foreign Secretary David] Miliband did was to sever all intelligence cooperation with Russian intelligence. Because this was an FSB plot. No one knows how high up it was authorized, but it was undoubtedly FSB.
The key jigsaw piece is the fact that Cameron and Hague have resumed intelligence cooperation—quite an astonishing step. You might call it pragmatism. Or a sleazy lack of principle.
The Interpreter: Why is the UK government so desperate to bury this episode? Is it more than repairing the diplomatic relationship?
Luke Harding: It’s British domestic politics above all. Chances of Cameron’s being reelected are diminishing by the week. The only thing his government cares about is trade and investment, so this is really an existential question. Courting Russia, having a more accommodationist attitude, is seen as a way of reviving UK PLC. It’s a desperate gambit, one of the most shameful things that a British foreign secretary has ever done. Marina was denied legal aid from the state, and now this. Hague has punched a huge whole into the inquest.
Mr. McCAIN. First, I thank my colleague from Maryland for a very eloquent and, I think, very strong statement, to which I can add very little. But isn’t it true, I ask my friend, that this Magnitsky case and the Khodorkovsky case, which I would like for us to talk a little bit more about, are not isolated incidents?
In other words, this is the face of the problem in Russia today. As the Senator mentioned, in its annual index of perceptions of corruption, Transparency International ranked Russia 154th out of 178 countries [ranked 131th in 2016]–perceived as more corrupt than Pakistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. The World Bank considers 122 countries to be better places to do business than Russia. One of those countries is Georgia, which the World Bank ranks as the 12th best country to do business [ranked 44th in 2016].
See my new diary – Saakashvili Applies for Family Reunification (EU)
In other words, isn’t it true in the Magnitsky case, it is what has been taking place all across Russia, including this incredible story of Khodorkovsky, who was one of the wealthiest men in Russia, one of the wealthiest oligarchs who rebelled against this corruption because he saw the long-term consequences of this kind of corruption and was brought to trial, convicted, and then, when his sentence was completed, they charged him again?
Talk about a corrupt system, isn’t it true that Vladimir Putin said he should “sit in jail,” and we now know that the whole trial was rigged, as revealed by people who were part of the whole trial? In other words, isn’t it true, I would ask my friend from Maryland, that what we are talking about is one human tragedy, but it is a tragedy that is unfolding throughout Russia that we do not really have any knowledge of? And if we allow this kind of abuse to go on unresponded to, then, obviously, we are abrogating our responsibilities to the world; isn’t that true?
Mr. CARDIN. I say to Senator McCain, you are absolutely right. This is not isolated. Magnitsky is not an isolated case of a lawyer doing his job on behalf of a client and being abused by the authorities. We have a lot of examples of lawyers trying to do their jobs and being intimidated and their rights violated.
But in Mr. Khodorkovsy’s case, we have a business leader who was treated the same way just because he was a successful business leader. Even worse, he happened to be an opponent of the powers in the Kremlin.
So we are now seeing, in Russia, where they want to quell opposition by arresting people who are just speaking their minds, doing their business legally, putting them in prison, trying them, and in the Khodorkovsky case actually increasing their sentences the more they speak out against the regime.
That is how authoritarian they want to be and how oppressive they are to human rights. But I could go further. If one is a journalist in Russia, and they try to do any form of independent journalism, they are in danger of being beaten, being imprisoned, being murdered. It is very intimidating. The list goes on and on.
Mr. McCAIN. Could I ask my colleague, what implications, if any, does the Senator from Maryland believe this should have on the Russian entry into the World Trade Organization?
Mr. CARDIN. Well, it is very interesting, I say to Senator McCain. I just came from a Senate Finance Committee hearing, and we were talking about a free-trade agreement. I am for free-trade agreements. I think it makes sense. It is funny, when a country wants to do trade with the United States, they all of a sudden understand they have to look at their human rights issues.
I think all of us would like to see Russia part of the international trade community. I would like to see Russia, which is already a member of a lot of international organizations, live up to the commitments they have made in joining these international organizations.
But it is clear to me that Russia needs to reform. If we are going to have business leaders traveling to Russia in order to do business, I want to make sure they are safe in Russia. I want to make sure they are going to get the protection of the rule of law in Russia. I want to make sure there are basic rights that the businesspeople in Russia and the United States can depend upon.
So, yes, I understand that Russia would like to get into the WTO. We have, of course, the Jackson-Vanik amendment that still applies. I understand the origin of that law, and I understand what needs to change in order for Russia to be able to join the World Trade Organization.
- ○ Magnitski case and Bill Browder: Fusion GPS was acting on behalf of Russia
○ Senior DOJ Official’s Wife Worked At Oppo Research Firm That Produced “Trump Dossier”
○ Senior FBI Official McCabe Gets Closed-Door Grilling From House Lawmakers
See my earlier diaries …
○ Chris Steele, Ukraine and Vicky Nuland
○ During Yeltsin Era, UK and US Stripped Assets Off Russia
○ Did MI6/CIA Collude with Chris Steele to Entrap Trump?
○ Fusion GPS linked to UAE Sheikh and Rubio Donor
○ British Intelligence Delivers Another ‘Dodgy Dossier’ by Oui @BooMan on Jan. 12, 2017