Saturday, July 1, 2017

Not Quite Collusion, but Attempted Collusion

So, the Wall Street Journal has come out with two blockbuster stories which I can't access behind their pay wall and only know second hand.  The gist of the story appears to be that Peter W. Smith, a long-time Republican operative sought hacked e-mails from the Russians, while claiming to act on behalf of Michael Flynn and other senior members of the Trump campaign.

A few things should be noted here.  First of all, Smith might be called an upper-middle level Republican operative.  He was an investment banker rich enough to bankroll investigations, but Richard Mellon Scaife rich, Sheldon Adelson rich, or Koch brothers rich.  He was not part of the Trump campaign inner circle, but he had access to the inner circle and understood its workings.  Oh, yes, and he can't give any further account because he is now dead.  (Don't get suspicious; he was 81 years old).

Second, although I have not read the second article (and can no longer access the first), the story seems to be extremely well sourced.  No question that this is legit.  Smith apparently talked freely to the Wall Street Journal and showed them e-mails and other documents to support his account.  Their story was backed by intelligence community intercepts showing the Russian intelligence services looking for a way to release e-mails to Flynn through an intermediary.  And a key source in the story has come forward  with his own account, giving greater details, but also saying that he did not understand the big picture of what was happening until he read the story.

Third, the story does not report any actual collusion.  It may better be described as willingness to collude or attempted collusion.

To understand what was going on, one must remember that there were two separate and unrelated scandals underway (or, arguably, two twin scandals and a separate and unrelated one) that got conflated in the public mind, and possibly even in the mind of Trump's inner circle, because they both involved Hillary Clinton and e-mails.

One was Hillary's use of a private server to send State Department e-mails.  There were two parts to this scandal.  One was that she sent State Department e-mails over her personal server that was not properly secured and was therefore vulnerable to hacking, although there is no evidence that it was actually hacked.

The other was that, when Congress ordered her to turn over her e-mails, she deleted some 33,000 that she said were "personal" -- about half of the total.  In Hillary's defense, she gave the order to delete her personal e-mails before they were subpoenaed, but it was not actually done until after.  She also had the e-mails "bleached" and destroyed two phones (apparently to protect classified data in them, but it looks bad).  Many Republicans, Trump among them, suspected that Hillary had deleted her "personal" e-mails because they contained something incriminating.  Trump regularly taunted her over this on the campaign trail.  He said, for instance, that he would release his tax returns when she released her e-mails -- knowing perfectly well that it was impossible because she had destroyed them. It was also in this context that Trump famously said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

The other scandal, also backdrop to Trump's comment inviting the Russians to release Hillary's e-mails was that they Russians really had hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server and published their e-mails through Wikileaks.  The DNC server contained neither classified information nor public records; its contents were private exchanges among private citizens, albeit ones engaged in a public campaign.  But since both scandals involved Hillary Clinton and e-mails, they tended to run together in public perception.

Enter Matt Tait, a British cyber security expert who tweets under the pseudonym of Pwn All the Things.  Tait studied released Clinton e-mails and posted what he considered significant, especially to issues of cyber security.  Smith apparently noticed his posts and (incorrectly) took them to mean that Tait was hostile to Clinton and eager to work as a Trump consultant.  Tait also took an interest in the Russian hack of the DNC (and clearly differentiated between the two events).

About the time of the first Wikileaks document dump, and about the time Trump called on the Russians to find Hillary's missing e-mails, Smith approached Tait to discuss the Clinton e-mails.  Tait assumed that, like so many others, Smith was conflating the two events.  But he was not.  He wanted to find those missing Clinton e-mails because he was convinced that they contained something sinister.  And Smith had, in fact, been contacted by someone on the "Dark Web" who claimed to have the missing e-mails.  Smith wanted Tait to examine them and see if they were authentic.  He apparently had no moral compunctions about publishing fake documents, but feared the bad publicity if he published something that turned out to be fake.  Tait warned Smith that anyone with the missing e-mails might be a front for Russian intelligence.  Smith did not care so long has the e-mails were genuine and hurt Hillary's chances.

Tait was also attempting to set up an "independent" company to do dirty work on behalf of the Trump campaign, operating as closely to it as the law allowed without actually being a part of it.  (Such arrangements are common and the laws governing them are monstrously complex).  It would include members of the Trump inner circle, including some who were not well-known at the time but would become so.  Overall, Smith impressed Tait with his knowledge of the workings of Trump's inner circle -- including some less than flattering information, such as that Flynn might not be confirmable the Senate and head of the CIA and would have to be National Security Adviser (a position not requiring confirmation) instead, and that Trump often tended just to repeat whatever he heard from the last person to talk to him.

And, it must be noted, none of this had to do with the actual, verified Russian hack on the DNC server.  All of it was an attempt to run down the missing Clinton e-mails.  And, although the Russians hacked just about everything else, there is no evidence that they ever breached Hillary's private server.  (Go figure).  Despite all Smith's efforts, her e-mails were never revealed.

I can see three possibilities here.  (1) The Russians never hacked Hillary's server.  (2) The hacked it, but decided to withhold the contents for possible future blackmail.  (3) They hacked it, but the deleted e-mails were so innocuous as not to be worth publishing.

That last seems unlikely.  In a trove of 33,000 e-mails, it surpasses belief that none of them could even be taken out of context to harm her.  (See spirit cooking, for instance).  The second is possible, I guess, but given that the Russians were throwing everything they could find at Hillary (see spirit cooking again), I am inclined to go with (1), the Russians never hacked Hillary's server and did not have her missing e-mails.  (That also matches with the absence of evidence of such a hack).  Which means that whoever was peddling the missing e-mails on the "Dark Web" was just a conman seeking to part a fool from his money.  (Serves him right).  Which means (circling back to the beginning) that these articles do not prove collusion, only attempted collusion and intent to collude.

But it also shows something else.  Remember Trump's challenge to the Russians to hack Hillary and find her missing e-mails?  Ever since he has defended it as a joke.  This article makes clear that he was deadly serious.

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