The Role of Foreign Intelligence in Spygate, Part 1: Australia and Estonia

(AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

The tentacles of Spygate reach beyond the halls of the FBI, Department of Justice, the NSA and the CIA and extend overseas.  We know that sometime in late 2015, the GCHQ became aware of suspicious interactions between suspected Russian agents and Trump campaign officials.  The campaign officials that are brought into this “conspiracy” are ultimately Carter Page, George Papadopolous, and Paul Manafort.  This is interesting for the simple fact that none of those three joined the Trump campaign until March 2016.  One report mentioned that Western intelligence sources shared information on suspected Russian agents and Trump’s “inner circle” until the summer of 2016.  Perhaps Manafort, but no reasonable person would consider the other two part of Trump’s “inner circle.” 

So who did the GCHQ have in mind in late 2015?  What piqued their interest in Trump associates having contacts with these alleged Russian agents?  Were they somehow tipped off by the CIA?  And why would the CIA be targeting Trump’s associates if that is true?  Did the CIA know something in late 2015 that nobody else knew and, if so, how did they know?

We will come back to the British role in part 2, but other countries were also involved.  We know that Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat in London, moved in the same circles as people like Stefan Halper and Joseph Mifsud- two key human intelligence operatives who tried to insert themselves into the Trump orbit by offering up alleged Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton as a lure.  In December 2015, Downer attended a 2-day retreat at the invitation of the British private intelligence firm, Hakluyt and Co. which had close ties to Orbis, Steele’s company.  In a January 2016 article in an Australian publication, it was reported that officials in Australia expressed concern about this meeting.  

In early March, FBI director James Comey flew to Australia and stayed there six days.  We know he met with their Justice minister and attorney general.  Three days after Comey leaves Australia, James Clapper arrives and neither the DNI nor the Australian government gives any details about what Clapper was doing there.  Less than two months later, Alexander Downer reaches out to George Papadopolous and they meet on May 10th when the low-level Trump adviser tells Downer about the “dirt” on Hillary comment planted in his head by Mifsud at the Link Campus.  This raises an interesting question: did they tip off the FBI in Washington about his impending Trump campaign employment?  Was he considered a possible weak link that could be compromised and, if so, why plant the bug in the ear of this person?

Ironically, or not, these trips to Australia by Comey and Clapper roughly coincide with the time period where Mike Rogers at the NSA is shutting off contractor access to the query of their database.  Clapper and Brennan know they cannot spy on a US citizen without a warrant and they have no reason to get a warrant, so they either had to use foreign contacts, or make those contacts in a foreign country.  They checked both boxes.  We later learned that although Erika Thompson, Downer’s assistant in London, reached out to Papadopolous, and that invitation was facilitated by an official at the Israeli embassy in London, Christian Cantor, who likely had some familiarity with Papadopolous given his background on energy exploration in the region.  

Another country mentioned was Estonia.  The leader of Estonia at the time was Toomas Hendrick Ives.  Ives attended the 52nd Munich Security Conference on February 12-14, 2016 along with James Clapper and Robert Hannigan, then the head of the GCHQ.  A month later on March 14, Trump tweets out his infamous “NATO is obsolete” message and suggests they should concentrate on terrorism rather than defending Europe against Russian aggression.  The comment is not all that controversial.  Remember Obama downplayed the Russian threat in a debate with Romney.

According to BBC reporter Paul Wood, at some point a “Baltic state” intelligence service provided John Brennan with a tape indicating that money from the Kremlin was entering the presidential election and flowing through three unnamed sources.  This taped recording of a conversation was relayed to Brennan in April 2016.  Using the tape as evidence, the DOJ went to the FISA court which rejected their application for a warrant to intercept communications of two Russian banks.  They then drew up a more narrow warrant in July which was also rejected.  They eventually got their warrant on October 15, 2016.  

This calls into question the veracity of the intercepted and taped conversation provided by this unnamed Baltic state believed to be Estonia.  It is a rare occasion when the FISC rejects a warrant, but they did so twice in this case.  Ironically, they get the warrant only after the Steele dossier mentions Alfa bank of Russia.

In May, 2016, Estonian president Ives attended the Lennert Meri Conference where he met, among others, David Kramer, a close associate of Senator John McCain who would later give McCain the Steele dossier.  It is likely that the Estonian leaders were concerned about a Trump victory given his comments about NATO.  Estonia stands on the border with Russia, has a large Russian-speaking population, and has been the victim of Russian hacking and some tit-for-tat spying operations.  

By August, the Estonians were well aware of accusations that the Russians had compromising information of a sexual nature on Trump and they began to conduct intelligence gathering operations on Trump Organization officials who visited Europe.  One purported intercepted conversation was between Michael Flynn and a US-based Russian diplomat believed to be Sergei Kislyak.  However, Flynn was never a part of the Trump Organization.    

It is also known that the Estonian intelligence service launched an investigation into Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and his longtime association with Igor Sechin.  Tillerson and Sechin are business partners from the former’s days as head of ExxonMobil.  The fear was that should the US ease sanctions on Russia with Trump as President, it might unleash Putin’s military adventurism with Estonia as a target.  The fears are for naught because of three factors: (1) sanctions have not been eased, (2) Trump successfully opposed the Nordstream 2 pipeline that would have been of great benefit to Russia, and (3) Tillerson was ousted at the State Department.

Next:  The Brits and the Dutch