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NYT's "Really Weird" Russiagate Story

By       Message Daniel Lazare       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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A Russian national with ties to cybercrime and Russian intelligence snookered U.S. spooks out of $100,000 by promising them fresh dirt on Donald Trump.

That's the takeaway from a strange front-page article that ran in last weekend's New York Times, "U.S. Spies, Seeking to Retrieve Cyberweapons, Paid Russian Peddling Trump Secrets." That's not all the article said, but the rest was so convoluted and implausible that it can be safely discounted.

Even Matthew Rosenberg, the Times reporter who wrote the story, described it as "a really weird one" in an interview with Slate. More than merely weird, however, the piece offers valuable insight into the parallel universe that is Russiagate, one in which logic is absent, neo-McCarthyism is rampant, and evidence means whatever the corporate press wants it to mean.

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The article says that the U.S. spies were seeking cyberweapons stolen from the National Security Agency by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers in 2016, but that a "shadowy Russian" kept pushing instead evidence buttressing the "golden showers" episode in the Christopher Steele dossier. The spooks were not interested because they didn't want to soil their hands with "the stuff of tabloid gossip pages" and because they feared that the Russian was trying to drive a wedge between the intelligence agencies and the White House. As the article puts it:

"The United States intelligence officials ... were wary of being entangled in a Russian operation to create discord inside the American government. They were also fearful of political fallout in Washington if they were seen to be buying scurrilous information on the president."

But Rosenberg's account raises a number of questions. One is why the spooks were "desperately" trying to retrieve stolen NSA hacking tools in the first place when, as cyber-security experts have warned, stolen malware is essentially irretrievable for the simple reason that it can be copied endlessly in an instant. Once a secret is out, the damage is done -- there's no getting it back.

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Another concerns why U.S. agents would continue taking "multiple deliveries" of anti-Trump data beginning last October that "they made clear that they did not want." Was the Russian unusually insistent? Or were the Americans less adamant than Rosenberg would have us believe?

Indeed, the article says that "at least four Russians with espionage and underworld connections have appeared in Central and Eastern Europe, offering to sell kompromat [i.e. compromising material] to American political operatives, private investigators and spies that would corroborate the [Steele] dossier." So it seems that demand for kompromat is as strong as it was in October 2016 when former FBI Director James Comey used the same unsubstantiated gossip to obtain a secret warrant to eavesdrop on an ex-Trump campaign aide named Carter Page.

Since the story about buying back malware doesn't make sense, could it be that kompromat is what the Americans were seeking all along? This is not the sort of thing that Trump would like to hear. The article says that Russia is out to spread material that will "cast doubt on the federal and congressional investigations into the Russian meddling" even though kompromat buttressing the Steele dossier would do the opposite. It says that the negotiations "ended this year with American spies chasing the Russian out of Western Europe, warning him not to return if he valued his freedom," and that the anti-Trump material remains in the hands of an American go-between "who has secured it in Europe."

Which raises more questions still. Can U.S. spies really lock up anyone they wish? And where, precisely, did the American stash the kompromat -- and to what end? Rosenberg indicates that he also interviewed the purported Russian agent. But nowhere do we get his side of the story concerning what the Americans were really after.

The results are incoherent even by Times standards. One reason may be that Rosenberg dashed the story off at breakneck speed after long-time intelligence writer and former Times-man James Risen published a similar piece a few hours earlier in The Intercept. But another is that the Russiagate narrative that the Times is pushing is itself incoherent and that Rosenberg is guilty of nothing more than toeing the company line.

He let the cat out of the bag in the Slate interview, which ran shortly after the story appeared on the Times website:

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"Spy games happen all the time, but you need a confluence of circumstances [for this]: You need an election with Russian interference. You then need a president to win and deny interference ever happened and say there is no collusion. You need the Russians to say, 'Oh, wow, let's take advantage of this. This really worked out. Let's make it worse and start selling this stuff off.'"

Rosenberg continued: "What the Russians were committed to -- what we really know -- is that they were committed to messing with American democracy. ... If their goal here is messing with American democracy, then getting some of this stuff out on Donald Trump, if it's real, that's worse, weakens him further, intensifies the political mess we are in. So there are reasons to do that. Plus, if you can get this into American consciousness through American spy agencies or law enforcement, you will have set off the White House versus its own spies in a way that if you are a Russian spy, that's great. Disorder and dissension in the ranks of your enemies."

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Freelance journalist and author of three books: The Frozen Republic (Harcourt, 1996); The Velvet Coup (Verso, 2001) and America's Undeclared War (Harcourt 2001).


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