James Bond or Austin Powers? Inside the cloak and dagger caper to spread Russia collusion tale
Court testimonies reveal key players spread Alfa Bank allegations using German encryption, secret pseudonyms, Hushmail and even lawyers listening through an office wall.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
The Democrat-funded operatives who spread the now-discredited Russia collusion tale about an Alfa Bank server have portrayed themselves as acting in the national interest, worried an American president might be compromised by a secret communications channel with the Kremlin. But as they went about their work, they employed a series of cloak-and-dagger tactics worthy of a James Bond or Austin Powers spy movie.
Court testimonies from former British spy and dossier author Christopher Steele and a former FBI analyst named Daniel Jones — both of whom were funded by Democrats to pursue Russia collusion evidence — mention the use of foreign encryption apps, computer experts using secret code names, alias email accounts and even an awkward law firm meeting where Hillary Clinton's campaign general counsel apparently engaged by sitting in an adjacent office where he couldn't be seen.
The latter anecdote comes from testimony Steele and his British attorney gave in a London court last year. Their accounts revealed the former MI6 operative hired by the Clinton campaign to find Russia dirt on Trump first received the information about an alleged secret computer communications channel between the Kremlin and Trump Tower from the campaign's own lawyers, and not from some intelligence operation in Russia or secret spy asset.
In other words, the political law firm and campaign that hired Steele to gather intelligence fed him something to put into his own dossier.
Gavin Millar, the British barrister who represented Steele in a British privacy case that Steele lost, revealed during a court hearing in spring March 2020 that Steele and his Orbis research firm first got the Alfa Bank allegations on July 29, 2016 from the recently indicted Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann.
Millar gave a colorful description of how Marc Elias, the famed counsel for Clinton's campaign, was present for the meeting but did not show his face to Steele, leaving his law partner Sussmann to do the talking.
Steele "attended a meeting in Washington with Perkins Coie on ... 29 July 2016," Millar told a judge in London. "That meeting, he says, was attended by the partner, Marc Elias, who was in the next room ... from where [Steele] was with Mr. Sussmann. He attended a Perkins Coie meeting with Mr. Sussmann. Mr Elias was in the vicinity. At the meeting, another partner, Mr. Sussmann, briefed him about allegations which Perkins Coie were aware of concerning server activity linking Alfa Bank and the Trump organization."
Millar said the meeting and transmission were significant because Steele, though employed by the Clinton campaign's law firm, had just used his own contacts as a former MI6 agent to bring early concerns to the FBI that Trump's campaign might be colluding with Russia. Steele had done so on July 5, 2016, or three weeks before meeting with Sussmann and Elias.
"The context is obviously going to be important, as well as the detail," Millar told the court. "As you have been told, by 29 July Mr. Steele had already had a meeting with the FBI, with an FBI representative, in London, regarding Orbis' ongoing research about these perceived links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials." You can read the lawyer's account here:
Steele would eventually confirm his lawyer's account in his own testimony in the British case. "Mr. Elias was in an adjacent room the first time I visited Perkins Coie on 29 July, I believe, 2016," Steele recounted.
Steele said he didn't get to see Elias' face or get his business card until a subsequent meeting in September 2016. "It's 22 September the first time I physically met him in person," Steele explained.
You can read Steele's testimony here:
Steele would include the allegation about Trump secretly communicating with the Kremlin from the Alfa Bank in his collection of memos loosely referred to as the Steele dossier. That allegation has since been successively discredited by the FBI, Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Special Counsel John Durham.
Durham recently indicted Sussmann, a former DOJ official, for failing to divulge to the FBI when he brought the Alfa Bank allegations to the bureau himself that he was working with Clinton's campaign. Sussmann has pleaded innocent.
Steele offered some other details on his cloak-and-dagger work for the Clinton campaign law firm. He said, for instance, he used an encrypted email program called Hushmail to communicate with Sussmann and Elias' firm and its Fusion GPS research firm and that he deleted all those materials in December 2016 after Trump won the election.
Steele also acknowledged that though he was hired to investigate Russia collusion he never once set foot on Russian soil to conduct his research.
"So your Russian sources are developed at a time when you have not actually visited the country?" Steele was asked.
"That is correct," the ex-spy answered.
"So you have not been in a position to go to Russia to meet sources in Russia or to check out they are who they say they are?" he was pressed.
"I have not personally been to Russia," Steele conceded. "It doesn't mean I have been unable to meet Russian sources or recruit Russian sources outside of Russia."
Steele's testimony — that he built his Russian collusion case without setting foot in the country and even took information from his client for his dossier — did little to convince the judge, who ruled Steele had not done adequate due diligence to check out some of the Alfa Bank allegations before spreading them around.
On Nov. 1, 2016, just months after the Russia collusion case started, the FBI terminated Steele as a confidential human source for leaking to the news media.
After Trump won the 2016 election, Steele and Fusion GPS were hired by a new liberal-funded research organization called The Democracy Integrity Project, or TDIP. It was run by a former FBI intelligence analyst name Daniel Jones, who later worked for the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Democratic megadonor George Soros has admitted he helped fund the group.
Jones testified in a separate court case this year how his new group, TDIP, continued to pursue the Alfa Bank allegations for another 18 months after the election, even authoring — at no charge — a 600-plus page report for the Senate Armed Services Committee suggesting there was merit to the allegations the FBI had already dismissed.
Like Steele before him, Jones said he met with Sussmann and the FBI.
In addition to hiring Fusion and Steele, Jones acknowledged he used a group of technology experts and executives to try to substantiate that pings between Alfa Bank and a Trump-related server might be evidence of a Russian plot.
That team had its own tactics to hide its work, Jones testified. They used code names like "Tea Leaves" and "Tina Doug" and "Max."
"I have recollections of other pseudonyms being used," he added.
Some of the players, he said, also communicated through an encrypted German app called "tutanota."
"This tutanota is — to the best of my recollection — a German encrypted email service," Jones explained. "This is not an email that I frequently used. But given the encryption and the potential connections to Russian intelligence it was advised that we use tutanota."
Jones explained the motive for all the spy tactics was to ensure Russian intelligence couldn't learn what they were doing.
"The idea is that obviously Russian intelligence is a powerful, has powerful abilities and that you should use as much Internet security as you can in such situations," he testified. You can read his full testimony here:
Jones and Sussmann and their defenders continue to argue they believe the Alfa Bank allegations to be meritorious. But they are in a small universe as the FBI's, Mueller's and Durham's experts all dismissed the notion Trump had a secret communications channel with the Kremlin routed through Alfa Bank.
"It wasn't true," Mueller testified to Congress in 2019.
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