Edward Jay Epstein is the author of several books on Soviet/Russian intelligence-related matters including Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA, Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer and, most recently, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. In the July 1974 Commentary essay “Did the press uncover Watergate?” Ed correctly deduced the identity of Deep Throat, thirty years before Mark Felt publicly acknowledged his role.
Ed is in my opinion our foremost living journalist. I don’t know of anyone with a keener understanding to separate fact from fiction in the “collusion” hysteria with which we have been inundated since election day.
Ed turns to the question of Russian involvement in the 2016 election in the City Journal column “A question of motive.” Here is the analysis with which Ed concludes his column:
The United States has a wide array of tools for monitoring Russian intelligence, including the world’s most sophisticated sensors for intercepting signals, but discovering the Kremlin’s motives remains an elusive enterprise because, unlike in a scientific inquiry, one cannot fully trust the observable data. While a scientist can safely assume that the microbes he observes through the lens of a microscope are not employing guile to mislead him, an intelligence analyst cannot make similar assumptions about the content of intercepted communications from Russia. If one assumes that the Russians do not know that the channel is being monitored—an assumption which, following the defection of Edward Snowden to Russia, is hard to make prudently—then the intelligence gleaned from that channel can reveal the Kremlin’s activities and motive. If, however, it is understood that the Russians know that a channel is being monitored, the information conveyed over it can be considered a disclosure operation.
If, for example, a Mafia family finds out that the FBI is tapping its telephone lines, it can use those lines to burn its rivals. The Kremlin can also use a known tapped phone line to its advantage. Consider, for example, the tapped phone of Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. On December 1, 2016, Kislyak went to Trump Tower to meet Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn. According to Kushner’s version of that meeting, Kislyak suggested that Russian generals could supply information about Russian military operations in Syria on the condition that the Trump transition team provide a “secure line in the transition office.” Of course, as Kislyak likely knew, transition teams don’t have secure lines to Moscow. Kushner responded by asking if the Russian embassy could supply such a “secure line.” Kislyak then used an open phone line at his embassy to relay Kushner’s response to his foreign ministry in Moscow. It is inconceivable that Kislyak did not know that the call would be monitored by the FBI, since the FBI had routinely listened in on these lines for the past 68 years, or that his discussion of Kushner’s request would set off alarm bells in the intelligence community.
If Kislyak had wanted to hide this exchange from U.S. intelligence, he could have easily sent it under diplomatic cover directly to Moscow, used a secure line, or relayed it in a coded fashion. By communicating the message en clair, or in plaintext, Kislyak skillfully exposed Kushner’s incredibly stupid response, which he himself had provoked, to stoke distrust about the incoming president within the U.S. intelligence community. Nor was this the only mistrust Kislyak cultivated: the conversations on the monitored phone led to the firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and conversations that Kislyak had with Attorney General Jeff Sessions led to Sessions’s recusing himself from the Russian investigation, which has now driven a wedge between President Trump and one of his most effective and popular cabinet members.
Kislyak’s resume indicates that he is a well-regarded and competent player in the game of nations: he has served as Second Secretary of the Soviet UN mission in New York, First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Deputy Director of the Soviet Department of International Organizations in Moscow, Permanent Russian representative to NATO in Brussels, Deputy Foreign Minister, and Ambassador to the United States. Nothing in his 37-year career, either during or after the Cold War, suggests that his moves are not aligned with Kremlin strategy.
But when it comes to the various disclosures and interventions surrounding the 2016 election, what exactly was that strategy?
In a report issued on January 6, 2017, entitled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” the U.S. intelligence community concluded, based both on its sources and its analysis of stories on the Russian-controlled network RT, that Putin wanted to hurt Clinton, help Trump, and discredit the American election. These may well have been motives of the Russian president, but the narrowly focused assessment fails to explain, or even take into account, Kislyak’s post-election ensnarement of Kushner, or the discrediting dirt against Trump. If Putin had really wanted to help Trump win the election, why did Russian sources provide damaging dirt to Steele, which could have cost Trump the election? Why did Kislyak provide the FBI with information, via a known tapped line, that could (and did) compromise key members of Trump’s administration?
A wider focus can be found, of all places, in Oliver Stone’s revealing, if fawning, four-hour interview with Putin, in which the Russian dictator makes clear that he views American hegemony, including America’s standing and respect in the international community, as a threat that Russia must counter. One way to undermine America’s standing is to provide disclosures that can be used by its own political factions, and the media, to sow distrust in America’s reliability as a democracy founded on transparency. Putin tells the truth when he says that it doesn’t matter particularly to Russia whether Clinton or Trump won the election: his goal was to install doubt in the legitimacy of the process, regardless of how it turned out.
Read the whole thing here.