Eric Felten: The Mifsud mystery

Eric Felten is a meticulous and literate reporter as well as one of my favorite analysts of the mysteries of Russiagate. Earlier this month we posted Eric’s July 1 RealClearInvestigations column “Insinuendo: Why the Mueller Report doth repeat so much.” Eric waded further into the Mueller miasma in the RCI column “The shaky foundations of Mueller’s footnotes.” Today Eric continues his investigation of Russiagate in the RCI column “Why the Mystery of Russiagate Hinges on the Mystery of Joseph Mifsud.” RCI authorizes the republication of its articles with attribution and we are happy to take advantage of the opportunity here. Eric writes:

For many, trying to follow Robert Mueller’s testimony was like someone whose Italian is limited to grazie and ciao taking in an opera in Venice: You might follow the action but sorting out the story through the lyrics is another thing altogether.

The former special counsel was peppered with questions phrased in a shorthand – Veselnitskaya, Simpson, Kilimnik – a shorthand of names each with a backstory it was assumed viewers, or at least the witness, would know. One of the most significant and dramatic – but also cryptic – exchanges occurred when Rep. Jim Jordan (R, Ohio) fired off a series of heated questions about a name few viewers are likely to have been familiar with: a Maltese professor invariably described as “mysterious,” Joseph Mifsud.

Jordan began: The “FBI interviewed Joseph Mifsud on February 10th, 2017. In that interview, Mr. Mifsud lied. You point this out on page 193, Volume I. Three times, he lied to the FBI; yet, you didn’t charge him with a crime. Why not?”

Mueller was still looking for the page in his binder: “Did you say — I’m sorry, did you say 193?”

“Volume I, 193,” Jordan repeated impatiently. “He [Mifsud] lied three times, you point it out in the report, why didn’t you charge him with a crime?”

Mueller found his footing: “I can’t get into internal deliberations with regard to who or who would not be charged.”

Jordan pointed out that the special counsel hadn’t hesitated to prosecute those alleged to have made false statements. George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to telling lies to the FBI; so too General Michael Flynn. False statements were part of Rick Gates’ guilty plea, and Michael Cohen’s as well. Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan (can anyone remember what alleged offense brought him to Mueller’s attention?) ultimately did a short jail stint for lying to investigators. Even after he had cut a deal to admit guilt and cooperate with prosecutors, Paul Manafort was accused by the special counsel of making false statements. With prosecutors so eager to punish half-truths and trivial dissembling, why did Mifsud come in for special treatment?

Perhaps Mifsud isn’t under indictment because he can’t be found. But, of course, Mueller’s team indicted a dozen Russian military intelligence officers, GRU agents safely in Russia and beyond the special counsel’s legal reach. Even if Mifsud were hiding out in Russia, why wouldn’t the special prosecutor indict him? The “guy who launches everything, the guy who puts this whole story in motion, you can’t charge him,” Jordan said. “I think that’s amazing.”

“I can’t get into the evidentiary filings.” Mueller said.

Jordan asked, “When the Special Counsel’s Office interviewed Mifsud, did he lie to you guys too?”

“Can’t get into that.”

“Did you interview Mifsud?”

“Can’t get into that.”

“Is Mifsud Western intelligence or Russian intelligence?”

“Can’t get into that.”

That’s an awfully consequential question to be outside the special counsel’s purview, one consequential enough to be worth asking until an answer can be found.

So, who and what is Mifsud? Jordan was just one of several Republicans asking the question. The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee posed the Mifsud puzzler in his introductory remarks: “He’s a Maltese diplomat who’s widely portrayed as a Russian agent,” Devin Nunes said, “but seems to have far more connections with Western governments, including our own FBI and our own State Department, than with Russia.”

Sorting out Mifsud mystery is crucial to understanding how and why members of the Trump team were treated by the FBI as potential traitors. But it requires making sense of events jumbled enough to be the denouement of a Raymond Chandler novel.

Democrats are taking an easier tack. They have largely turned from the dead end of collusion to focus instead on using Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice insinuations as a brief for impeaching the President. The legal arguments for obstruction may be abstruse, but the basic narrative is easy enough to explain and understand – a claim that Trump somehow interfered with and impeded investigators.

Republicans, by contrast, have to figure out who Mifsud is and explain why the man from Malta matters in an investigation billed as being about Russian mischief. Even just the first part of that equation will be difficult because Mifsud is indeed a mystery. Authorities, for example, say they have no idea where he has been for almost two years. And even if he does turn up it still won’t be clear who, exactly he is. “The shadowy professor,” Jonathan Turley wrote, “emerged as the Keyser Söze of the Mueller hearings.”

But just because Mifsud is mysterious doesn’t mean we can’t start to unravel the mystery.

To understand the centrality of Mifsud’s role, one has to go back to the end of 2017. That’s when Republicans were pointing to misleading and incomplete claims in the Department of Justice application to surveil onetime Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Republicans, in a January 2018 House Intel committee memo, argued the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign was tainted because it had relied on Steele’s stories, “even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials.”

In a rebuttal memo, Democrats declared that Steele’s “reporting did not inform the [FBI’s] decision to initiate its counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016.” The real predicate was George Papadopoulos, they stated, to whom “Russian agents previewed their hack and dissemination of stolen emails.”

According to the special counsel’s report, leading the Russian effort was Joseph Mifsud. The report suggests that when the previously unknown Papadopoulos learned he would be an adviser to the Trump campaign in March 2016, Vladimir Putin’s intelligence service called on a friendly professor to share with the low-level 29-year-old campaign volunteer news about Russia’s ongoing, top-secret efforts to hack Hillary Clinton-affiliated computer systems.

Liar vs. Liar?

It was Mifsud, the report alleges, who took a trip to Moscow, and on his return “told Papadopoulos that the Russian government had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.”

Not so, said Mifsud in February 2017 when FBI agents interviewed him in the lobby of a Washington hotel. As Mueller recounted it in his report, Mifsud “denied that he had advance knowledge that Russia was in possession of emails damaging to candidate Clinton, stating that he and Papadopoulos had discussed cybersecurity and hacking as a larger issue and that Papadopoulos must have misunderstood their conversation.” The special counsel blamed Papadopoulos’ dissembling for disabling the FBI agents’ ability to get the goods on Mifsud: “The false information and omissions in Papadopoulos’s January 2017 interview undermined investigators’ ability to challenge Mifsud when he made these inaccurate statements.”

Maybe Mifsud was telling the truth. After all, the evidence to the contrary is supplied by someone who has done (a very little) time in jail for telling federal officials falsehoods. Which would at least explain why the special counsel did so little to pursue the professor. Having wrung a confession out of Papadopoulos for false statements about Mifsud, the special counsel’s team may have anticipated the difficulty they would face basing accusations against Mifsud on Papadopoulos’ say-so.

But it is another hypothesis altogether that is gaining traction with Republican lawmakers: the notion that the professor was indeed an intelligence asset, just not for Russia. “Joseph Mifsud is the key figure in the FBI’s opening of the official investigation of the Trump campaign, yet no one knows who he was working for,” Devin Nunes tells RealClearInvestigations.

Even though Mifsud is portrayed as the original contact between Russia and the Trump campaign, and key to the alleged reason the FBI took the rare and controversial step of opening a counterintelligence probe against a presidential campaign, Nunes says the FBI and the special counsel were strangely blasé about the professor. “Mifsud has contacts throughout western governments, none of whom seem concerned that they’ve been compromised by a Russian agent.”

RealClearInvestigations reached out to Mueller’s spokesman, Jim Popkin of Seven Oaks Media Group. Asked whether the former special counsel had any comment or explanation he wished to add to his testimony about Mifsud, Popkin said “We are not commenting today.”

Mueller may have shown disinterest in identifying Mifsud, but House Republicans are making it a top investigative priority. Nunes wrote May 3 to the State Department, FBI, CIA, and NSA asking for copies of any and all information they have about Mifsud. “We have received back some information,” says a House Intelligence Committee staffer, and they “expect to receive significantly more.”

In his letter, Nunes raised the question Jim Jordan would later pelt Mueller with – why, given the special counsel’s zero tolerance policy on false statements, was an exception made for Mifsud? “It should be noted that the Special Counsel declined to charge Mifsud with any crime even though, to justify seeking a prison sentence for Papadopoulos, the Special Counsel claimed Papadopoulos’ untruthful testimony ‘undermined investigators’ ability to challenge the Professor or potentially detain or arrest him while he was still in the United States.’”

RealClearInvestigations asked for interviews and submitted written questions about Mifsud to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Intel Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, as well as Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California. None responded.

Republican Doubts

Perhaps, as the special counsel claims, Papadopoulos hobbled FBI agents who were anything but shy in their pursuit of the professor. Or perhaps, as suggested by some congressional Republicans, the professor got a pass, either because he made some sort of deal, or because he may not have been working for the Russians at all.

As Lee Smith has reported for RealClearInvestigations, “Although Mifsud has traveled many times to Russia and has contacts with Russian academics, his closest public ties are to Western governments, politicians, and institutions, including the CIA, FBI and British intelligence services.” One of his jobs was to train diplomats, police officers, and intelligence officers at schools in London and Rome, where he lived and worked for years.

Now that Republicans are openly asking whether Mifsud might be a Western intelligence agent, they are posing the possibility that Mifsud’s approach to Papadopoulos was a counterintelligence sting rather than a Russian operation. These were questions Robert Mueller would not or could not answer.

Because they are essential to making sense of how the Russia affair began and what it is all about, the questions about Mifsud won’t go away. Nunes says, “We’re just trying to find out who this guy really is.”

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