In the fierce information battle on Donald Trump a 35 page highly secret document by an unknown British intelligence officer was leaked that, if true, is devastating for the president-elect. But is it plausible? Security expert Mark Galeotti is sceptical. This superspy has unbelievable many high-placed sources in the Kremlin. The turmoil suits the Kremlin well.
After lurking in the media subspace for months, a series of memos have finally surfaced purporting to be from a former British intelligence officer and describing in great detail links between Donald Trump and his team and the Russian state. They were the basis for a two-page briefing document delivered by the US intelligence community to the president-elect and have now been published in full by Buzzfeed. To call them explosive is, if anything, to understate the case: behind-the-scenes business deals, lurid claims of 'perverted sexual acts', high-level meetings, blackmail dossiers, even Kremlin in-fighting. It’s all here. But is it credible? Or does it risk simply being another escalation in the smear war that is tearing apart the US body politic? I confess I am sceptical.
President Poetin bij de VN met woordvoerder Peskov, minister Lavrov en assistent Oesjakov. Foto Kremlin
Who is this superspy?
First of all, the level of access and sources claimed by the author of the memos is quite startling. If taken at face value he (though it could be a she) is privy to top-level inside gossip from a strikingly wide range of Russian institutions, from big business to the Presidential Administration (the real government of Russia) and the intelligence agencies. It is extraordinarily rare for anyone to have that kind of network when they are in government service, let alone to maintain them when outside it.
And if that sounds like I am hinting at a certain level of disbelief, that’s because I do indeed question it. The memos are full of claims of 'high-level' sources here and there, the sort that I think MI6 or the CIA would give their left arms for, and yet somehow this former spook is able to tap them for often first-hand knowledge of what is, it’s fair to say, pretty sensitive information. Much human intelligence is second- or third-hand, gathered through the inevitable rumour mill, or from drivers and mistresses, guards and in-laws, not from principals, who tend to be close-lipped and closely-guarded. Somehow this superspy is able not only to know people right at the heart of the Russian political machine, he can talk to them regularly (in Russia? By phone? By email? My experience is that these days Russians are, if anything, overly paranoid about all such indirect, tappable and traceable communications), and he can ask them about the most sensitive topics, and he gets away with it.
Furthermore, it sounds like everyone from press spokesman Dmitri Peskov and figures in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to oil baron Igor Sechin was in the know about the Trump cultivation, corruption and kompromat (the Russian term for compromising information) operation. Basic operational security would be to keep the circle of knowledge as tight as possible. Given how wide it is according to these reports, how come no one else heard any of these stories? Not even peripheral details, such as the claim (which I find implausible) that Presidential Administration head Sergei Ivanov was sacked as part of what is a cover up according to one document, because of his role in the operation according to another?
That Moscow would seek to gather political information and kompromat on figures within the US system is a given. That they would turn to using this as an active measure is clear. But it is much harder to accept not only a long-term plan to elevate Trump to the presidency – no one in Moscow seems to have thought this possible – but also one done in coordination with his campaign. The memos claim Trump’s team was providing Moscow with intelligence about Russian oligarchs in the US (is this really the best source for them?) but also that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met Russian officials in Prague to coordinate strategy.
Why would this be? Why hold a meeting in a small European country where there will be immigration and travel records that can ultimately prove if Cohen (who claims, with some evidence, that he was in the States at the time) and his alleged Russian interlocutors were indeed there? Why would the Russians even want or need to coordinate, and is there much evidence of such coordination?
This divide suits Moscow perfectly
There are, to be blunt, more questions than answers, especially when we come to strange claims of links between Putin and the Alfa Group financial conglomerate. The more outré claims about Trump’s own conduct are, by contrast, not for me implausible, but are unlikely to be the stuff of which solid kompromat is based. The uncomfortable irony is that there is so much that is grotesque in his backstory, behaviour and even personal narrative, which did not prevent his election, that he might even by immune to this kind of blackmail.
But the fundamental point is that somehow there is a sheaf of what look like private intelligence company memos claiming extraordinary access and telling a story of complicity between the Kremlin and PEOTUS, as the current acronym has it, that verges into the fantastical. If it is all true, then it is dynamite. But is it?
We need to know who this superspy is, and no doubt soon enough we will. If this is a genuine commercial operation, and not a wholly-fabricated piece of anti-Trump disinformation, someone will recognise the memos, or at least their look and format, and the word will get out. We need to know if Cohen was indeed in Prague then, something the Czechs will be able to confirm or deny.
The trouble is that this is too tempting for the anti-Trump camp to ignore, too damning for the pro-Trump camp to accept. At present it is just empty allegation, and such is the deterioration of Trump’s relationship with the US intelligence, but also its credibility in general, that the airy claim that they have investigated the source and find it believable, are not enough. In the absence of any evidence, this will do nothing but widen the dangerous divide within American society.
And here’s the irony: that’s exactly what the Kremlin wants. Whether damning proof of complicity with an antagonistic foreign power, or a piece of raw anti-Trump disinformation, at present this cache of documents is probably more effective than any number of hours of programming by Russia’s RT television station – which emerged as the star of the recent and deeply flawed open source on the hacking case – in turning America against itself.
Useful comment by FSB-expert Andrei Soldatov: there are errors in the report, but background gives reasonably convincing details.
British intelligence officer who wrote the Trump report considered a serious professional.
Read also the reaction of intelligence sources in Wired.