No victory for Putin: The Trump dossier scandal

T
here is no doubt whatsoever that Russia has compiled ‘information’ on Trump. Russian intelligence considers it a rightful duty to compile information on persons of relevance, especially when they are conducting significant business or political relations with Russia.

Trump qualified under that definition long before he even thought about running for President. Even I have been followed, during my numerous times in Russia, both openly and tacitly. I have had my computer hacked and hotel phone bugged. And my affairs in Russia have come nowhere near to the financial or political relevance of Donald Trump.

However, there has been a breakdown in America when it comes to understanding how Russia would use such information if it indeed had a dossier of this type. Americans may love exposing things through the media with a voyeuristic passion, bringing the high down low. That’s just the nature of the beast today in American Kardashian culture. But this dossier of alleged Russian intelligence on Trump has nothing to do with American celebrity culture. If it truly exists this would have been done under the edict of ‘national security’ for Russian geopolitical interests. As such, the proper Russian intelligence behavior would be to deny its existence and hold on to anything it has until a time deemed strategically best. The least efficient usage of that compromising material would be to just embarrass him publicly before he is inaugurated, TMZ ‘gotcha’ style. Russians simply don’t work that way. Rather, keeping it secret and using it in a non-public but strategically-effective manner for their national interests is the Russian way.

For example, the even more infamous Wikileaks affair against Clinton was an example of Russians trying to smudge the character and momentum of Hillary, assuming she was indeed going to win the election. HRC positions have been decidedly anti-Russian (to the Russians at least) over the past half dozen years, vociferously and publicly. The email leaks were a rather limp attempt to just slow that political train down before it took office, to make her pause and understand that she should treat Russia with a bit less shrill judgment.

“The Russian system has plenty of deficiencies, but no outsider could possibly find out what kinds of discussions are taking place in Putin's office, who is angry at who, or any of that intimate detail,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Putin runs a very tight ship. No leaks. No rumors confirmed. He is, famously, very professional about it.” This estimation is totally true. Lukyanov is a very reliable source if you want opinions on Russia that you can consider astute and balanced: someone who is not hyperbolically pro-Kremlin but also not sheep-like anti-Russian either. Indeed, many of the more ‘famous’ Russian academics so often quoted and interviewed in the West are decidedly anti-Putin in their analyses, thereby effectively currying financial favor and scholarly status with Western think tanks and institutes.

As for the supposition that this dossier leak is a ‘victory’ for Putin regardless of its truthfulness, I hold the contrarian view: if Putin’s intelligence agencies do indeed have a dossier of compromising information on the President-elect, then the last thing Putin would consider a ‘victory’ would be the preemptive and uncontrolled leaking of that information all over social media by an unofficial foreign agent that he did not manage. This would be a LOSS, not a victory. It would mean Putin lost control of both the process of how to use the information and the narrative of just how to release the information to particular audiences for the greatest benefit to Russia. The leak of the dossier to everyone in the world means it does not truly benefit Russian interests at all. Just leaking it and embarrassing the President-elect, with no real ‘proof’ or ‘smoking gun’ evidence attached and no ulterior geostrategic purpose achieved means this story will fade away and be replaced by some other titillating story. To a large degree this has already happened. Thus, the Russians have lost what it hoped to be tremendous strategic leverage behind the scenes and down the road. Ergo, no victory for Putin.

Americans still trying to position it as a victory are simply not astute in the ways of real geopolitics and strategy. And that applies even for the supposed Russian experts here in America who do so much advising today to media and governmental elites. The state of ‘Russian expertise’ in America today is extremely disappointing and dull. We currently live in times that has Washington DC and the Slavic Studies community obsessed with pushing a very narrow and very cliche orthodox narrative about the Russian Federation and its motivations. That narrative believes the only thing Kremlin officials do are sit around tables recklessly and illogically pondering ways to ‘surpass’ the United States with no real calculation for national interests. Supposedly appending that 2-page summary to the formal Presidential/President-elect briefing is confirmation of how far this relationship environment between DC and Moscow has fallen. The US IC basically felt reluctantly compelled to discuss what was nothing more than a de facto TMZ gossip report. That fact alone is what signals the immediate future of Russian-American relations will remain dark and stormy.

As for how people should consider the dossier and its creation: it was collected by a ‘former British intelligence official’ hired by Republican party operatives interested in obtaining damaging information to use against Trump in the election primaries. What that really means is that he had no access to formal governmental reconnaissance technologies or personnel. As such you can reliably assume he simply dug deep into the rumor mills that run crazily around Moscow. The dossier is much closer to what TMZ, the famous gossip-paparazzi organization in America, produces than the CIA or MI6. It is not a true intelligence brief. The blurring of this distinction in the media has been irresponsible and laughable.

How many have actually read the dossier in full? It is utter tripe. None of it would pass muster for inclusion in a formal Intelligence Community briefing if it was produced by a member of the IC. But none of the details in the dossier would pass a peer-review for scholarly journal either. At best, it’s the kind of material one finds on a deeply partisan political blog. Does this mean nothing in the dossier could be true? No, it does not. But it does mean the dossier, at best, represents what I advise students when using Wikipedia for research: you can start your research using Wikipedia to learn relevant terms, actors, and events. But then you need to go deeper, far beyond Wikipedia, to understand what is verifiable and falsifiable and thus worthy of inclusion in a scholarly analysis. The dossier is Wikipedia or TMZ gossip. It is not the deeper, vetted analyses demanded by real intelligence or legitimate scholarship. This is what the American media and/or intelligence community needs to do next: transform this affair from gossip to analysis. The concern is that it does not appear that anyone, media or government, is seemingly interested in doing that deeper digging: is this just TMZ titillation or is it true debauchery that should make the American people concerned about its incoming President on a deeply moral level?

Some have scratched their heads over why US intelligence agencies appear to have legitimized the documents by supposedly including that aforementioned summary in a top-secret briefing. But the Intelligence Community is actually the only body in this sordid affair that can somewhat be given a pass, as it faced a no-win scenario. The best analogous example is to recall the situation Director Comey of the FBI was in pre-election, regarding the whole possible HRC indictment. Although it was under-emphasized in the media, Comey himself said he reopened the investigation because he felt tremendous pressure, caught between a rock and a hard place: do not reopen when new information has come to light and you are vulnerable to accusations of trying to engineer a particular electoral result, when the Intelligence Community is loath to be viewed political at all. However, reopening the case (even when you say it is just to review new material and explicitly state it is not a declaration of guilt) makes you victim to the opposite accusation: that you are still politicized and looking to engineer a particular electoral result, just a different one from the previous diatribe.

Thus, the inclusion or open discussion of a 2-page summary is much the same dilemma: do not include it or mention it, when Buzzfeed has splashed it all over the internet already, and you expose the Intelligence Community to an accusation of trying to sweep something under the rug. Doing a 2-page summary with a formal declaration that it is NOT making a statement about its validity or reliability was an IC maneuver to walk the knife’s edge of a situation that had no real optimal end-game. “Intel and law enforcement officials agree that none of the investigations have found any conclusive or direct link between Trump and the Russian government period, the senior official said. According to the senior official, the two-page summary about the unsubstantiated material made available to the briefers was to provide context, should they need it, to draw the distinction for Trump between analyzed intelligence and unvetted ‘disinformation.’”

This quote, taken from an NBC News story, is the explanation most credible and accurate in terms of how intelligence officials actually behave in such situations. The professionals I have known in the Intelligence Community would absolutely convey the information so that relevant actors could be aware of information likely to emerge publicly (giving them a ‘heads up’, as it were), but they would also emphasize whether the IC takes the information as credible. If not credible or still unverified, then it makes sense that it was presented to Trump in an informal or even just oral manner. Additionally, an almost ignored aspect in the story is how an intelligence official tries to make people understand that there is a huge difference between ‘analyzed intelligence’ and ‘unvetted disinformation.’ The IC has tried rather valiantly to make people in America understand that until the dossier is formally declared the former, then it is decidedly the latter. It should not be blamed on the IC, therefore, if most media venues and political organizations are skipping right past these clarifications and attributing meaning to the American Intelligence Community that it has not claimed as its own.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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