NY Times ‘Limited Hangout’ on Steele Dossier Spares Obama

Former CIA agent Howard Hunt introduced a useful phrase into the political lexicon during the Watergate brouhaha -- “limited hangout.” Those two words well describe the recent New York Times article, “Secret Sharers: The Hidden Ties Between Private Spies and Journalists.”

Better late than never, one supposes, Barry Meier of the Times concedes that his newspaper and many others in the media fell for the trap set by former British intelligence operative, Christopher Steele, and his employers at Fusion GPS.

Only readers of the Times could be shocked to learn in May 2021 that “many of the [Steele] dossier’s most explosive claims -- like a salacious “pee” tape featuring Mr. Trump or a supposed meeting in Prague between Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former attorney, and Russian operatives -- have never materialized or have been proved false.” OMG!

Meier takes particular aim at his fellow journalists. He argues that “the dossier took them down a very different path” from the more traditional ones they had followed in the past --“court records, corporate documents and other tangible pieces of evidence.”

After BuzzFeed published the entire Steele dossier in January 2017, Meier notes that “countless articles, television shows, books, tweets and blog posts about it appeared.” What Meier seems to overlook, at least in this article, is that the dossier began influencing the media well before the 2016 election, not just afterward. That, in fact, was the point of the dossier’s creation.

In September 2016, for instance, Michael Isikoff wrote a lengthy breakout article for Yahoo News based on a briefing by “multiple sources,” the most notable of whom, unnamed in the article, was Steele. As Isikoff reported, intelligence officials were investigating Trump adviser Carter Page’s “private communications with senior Russian officials.”

Isikoff reported too that Senate majority leader Harry Reid had briefed FBI director James Comey on the “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, information Reid could only have gotten from the dossier. The word was spreading.

In Meier’s retelling, Isikoff is something of a hero for having “backed away” from the dossier before his peers. Meier also cites Erik Wemple of the Washington Post for writing a series of columns about “the media infatuation with the dossier.” Although Isikoff’s commentary is undated, Wemple’s columns appeared in 2020. No misprint, 2020.

According to Meier, the media started to wise up in 2019, when Robert Mueller and Michael E. Horowitz issued their respective reports, which together “threw cold water on the dossier and raised the possibility that Russian agents might have fed disinformation to Mr. Steele’s sources.”

What Meier does not even hint at in this 2600-word article, largely excerpted from his forthcoming book, Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube and the Rise of Private Spies, are the political consequences of the three-year media feeding frenzy between the dossier’s rise and fall.  Not surprisingly, Meier makes zero mention in this lengthy excerpt of how then-President Barack Obama and his operatives used the dossier to rig the 2016 election and subvert the Trump presidency.  This omission is classic “limited hangout.”

According to a lawsuit filed by Watergate conspirator Hunt, “A ‘limited hangout' is spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting -- sometimes even volunteering -- some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”

By focusing on the media failure to see through the Steele dossier, as part of a larger problem with reliance on “private spies,” Meier spares Times readers knowledge of just how the dossier was used in 2016. Working with Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence (HPSCI), author Lee Smith provides arguably the clearest analysis of Steele’s mischief in his 2019 book, The Plot Against the President.

According to Smith, Steele started speaking with Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson and the Justice Department’s Bruce Ohr on the subject of Trump-Russia in January 2016. In October 2015, Simpson had hired Ohr’s wife, Nellie Ohr, a Russian expert, to investigate, in her words, “the relationship of Donald Trump with Russian organized crime figures.”

In April 2016, the Clinton campaign and DNC hired Fusion GPS to share its Russian dirt on Trump with the media. Leading from behind as was his wont, Obama was never so far behind that he could not see what was to come. From time to time he showed his hand, starting with an April 2016 appearance on a Fox News Sunday morning show with Chris Wallace.

When asked about Hillary Clinton’s nonsecure email system, Obama opined, “She has acknowledged -- that there’s a carelessness, in terms of managing emails, that she… recognizes.” That conceded, he added, “I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America’s national security.”

Hillary was Obama’s chosen successor. He was confident his secrets of state would be safe with her. If she were indicted for her apparent crime, the White House could easily fall into enemy hands. If James Comey and his colleagues were uncertain of Obama’s will before that appearance, they no longer were.

By May 2016, relying on Nellie Ohr’s research, Fusion prepared a series of what Nunes called “protodossiers” on Trump-Russia. “It wasn’t front-page material,” reports Smith. “Still, the proto-dossiers provided journalists with some leads.”

In that same month, May 2016, Fusion hired Steele to flesh out the proto-dossiers. In so doing, Steele, a self-avowed Trump hater, shifted the emphasis of the investigation. Whereas Ohr had been looking into connections between Trump’s people and Russian crime lords, Steele’s goal was to frame Trump as a tool of the Kremlin.

The plot was in gear. On June 20, Steele introduced the first of the memos that would comprise the Steele dossier. In late June, a British counterpart allegedly tipped off CIA chief John Brennan that something was rotten at Trump Tower. On July 5, the FBI met secretly with Steele in London. On that very same day, Comey cleared Hillary Clinton of criminal charges.

The task had fallen to the now notorious Peter Strzok, the FBI’s lead investigator on the Clinton email case -- code name “Midyear Exam” -- to align the FBI’s messaging with that of the White House. It was he who changed the language in an earlier draft by Comey from “gross negligence” -- the exact words in the Espionage Act -- to “extremely careless,” the words Obama introduced and Comey eventually used.

In her testimony before the HPSCI, Strzok’s FBI lover, Lisa Page, acknowledged that the directive had come from Obama’s DoJ not to charge Hillary with a crime. With Clinton now the certain nominee, the pressure increased to protect her candidacy and Obama’s legacy.

As the summer of 2016 progressed, Steele shared his research about Donald Trump memo by memo not just with the FBI, but also with the DoJ, the State Department, and select media. The cumulative tale the Steele memos told was that Donald Trump had been compromised by the Russian government and was colluding with it to steal the upcoming election.

The CIA’s John Brennan got the word. According to a March 2018 HPSCI report, Brennan had become aware of “specific Russian efforts to influence the election” by that summer. It was he who “pulled together experts” from the CIA, NSA, and FBI “to focus on the issue.”

In June 2017, the Washington Post published a lengthy, breathless article detailing an early August 2016 meeting in the White House. It should be noted that the article was written to provide cover for the Obama administration’s seemingly lackadaisical response to what the media imagined as the greatest provocation from Moscow since the Cuban missile crisis. According to the Post, the CIA’s Brennan had sent an “intelligence bombshell” directly to Obama, an “eyes only” report with sourcing deep inside the Kremlin.       

This report had to be some subset of Steele’s memos. It allegedly detailed “Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.” Reportedly, Putin was not just meddling in the campaign but was actively trying to defeat Hillary and elect Trump.

In June 2017, when the Post article was published, its editors were still confident that “Russia’s interference was the crime of the century.” It was no such thing, but in documenting the White House’s multilevel response to the alleged threat, the Post sheds unwitting light on what was the crime of the century, the White House’s framing of Donald Trump for collusion with Russia.

For their role in that crime, the Washington Post and New York Times shared a "national reporting" Pulitzer in 2018. Yes, as late as 2018, when every sentient person in MAGA land knew what a clown show the collusion hoax was, the Pulitzer people were praising the Times and Post for their "deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation's understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect's transition team and his eventual administration."

Spitballing here, but I am guessing Meier will not address the effect of that reporting on the 2018 mid-terms, let alone the 2020 election.

Jack Cashill’s latest book, Barack Obama’s Promised Land: Deplorables Need Not Apply, is now on pre-sale. See www.cashill.com for more information.

Image: NYTimes

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