Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 12, 2018

What was refreshing about a recent investigative New York Times story was not only that it led us through a fascinating journey, but that it let us know that the reporter, the characters in the story and the reader all should be bringing a healthy dose of caution to believing its details.

There was a believable core, for sure, but exactly how a shadowy world of spied served up a $100,000 payoff by the American government for hope-for retrieval of stolen NSA cybertools came about, well, that was a bit harder to nail down. And then, all of a sudden, there was the specter, or image, of Donald Trump.

One thing all political, partisan or undercover adherents could agree on these days is that truth sometimes exists only in the shadows. It would be wonderful to know intentions from feints, but often that gets hidden in layers of spycraft or political legerdemain. Spin is the lasting mark of our generation rather than truth.

As a result, we spend our time disputing facts of process rather than the needs to respond to more basic values. So, even this week, the president could insist that a Democratic response to a now-public Republican memo alleging missteps by the FBI needed to be redacted to avoid disclosing classified information rather than dealing with the meat of the problems being debated. It goes on day after day on issues large and small.

The Times story by Matthew Rosenberg as well as one by James Risen in Intercept, both very experienced journalists, detailed the efforts of U.S. spies to reach out to a slippery Russian national who had offered to lead them on a circuitous search across Europe to the stolen hacking tools. In the climactic meeting, the unnamed Russian instead offered up what was described as compromising information about President Trump, including what he said was a video of the unproved, but known hotel room scene with Trump and prostitutes; the American spies involved resisted receiving the information fearing that it was fake and would be used to sow disorder within the ranks of U.S. government. Nevertheless, they paid him $100,000 towards what they hoped would be delivery of the hacking tools.

It was Spy v. Spy stuff, only it is playing out in real life, real time, not Mad Magazine.

Among other things, the information that was delivered to the Americans, a few copies of which The Times had gotten leaked, tended to be information that already has been published by American news organizations. And, of course, it tended to duplicate the kind of information, if not the information itself, that had come to Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy, whose work for Fusion GPS and shared with the FBI, was being denounced this last week in the debate over release of memos about information used to obtain FISA warrants for surveillance of Trump associate Carter Page in his dealings with Russians.

Talk about circular arguments.

Nevertheless, it was a fascinating piece of reporting. Slate’s Isaac Chotiner talked about the story with Rosenberg, who told a pretty interesting tale about the journey.

“American spies went out looking for these hacking tools that the NSA had created that had been stolen. And they found a Russian who said he could sell it all, but said, ‘You are also going to get all the kompromat on Donald Trump. The sex tape. All of it.’ The Americans were like, “Oh, God, we don’t really want that, we want those hacking tools,” so they kept negotiating. . . It’s basically a story about what a weird, kind of strange, difficult time this is. Spy games happen all the time, but you need a confluence of circumstances: 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.’ And you need that dossier to exist, and get the idea in the public imagination that this stuff is out there. And you need all these things to come together to get this truly bizarre thing where American spies, who aren’t supposed to spy on American citizens — full stop — are suddenly confronted with ‘Wait, a possible foreign agent wants to sell us a sex tape of the president?’ That’s not something they usually do.”

Intelligence officers “never know entirely who is who. And with the Russians it is especially hard. Russian intel officer vs. a Russian who knows some guys in intel vs. organized criminal in Russia is a very blurry line. And on top of that, suddenly you’ve got guys out there saying, ‘We will sell you all this crazy information.’ Are they organized crime guys trying to make a quick buck? Or is this a Russian intel operation . . . The Russians are not playing three-dimensional chess; the Russians are not savvier than we are. They are just opportunistic, and they are willing to use information and weaponize it.”

“The Russian who was selling the stuff was somebody who was known to the Americans, who has these weird underground and espionage connections. But he also does some money laundering and has this laughable cover business where he sells these portable grills you can wear around your neck for street-side sausage salesman. The company has been nearly bankrupt for years. . .

“I think there’s a popular conception out there that the Russians were committed to seeing Donald Trump elected. And I think that is not entirely borne out by the facts. What the Russians were committed to — what we really know — is that they were committed to messing with American democracy. Whether Trump was a vehicle for that or not, that’s still a big question. But it looks like for them he was. 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, in summary, we have created a political situation in which “truths” are more situational than ever, in which the shadowy world of underhanded deal-making is replacing straight talk, all out of concern for personal gain and protection.

Does this Make America Great?



Journalist, musician, community volunteer