This interview was recorded August 13, 2020. The computer garbled the audio terribly, but at least the auto-transcriber was able to make sense of it. The following is edited for clarity and minor mess-ups.
Scott Horton: Alright you guys, introducing Matt Taibbi, formerly at Rolling Stone and now just doing his own thing over there at Substack. And of course, he also runs a podcast with Katie Halper called Useful Idiots, which is great. I watch it semi-regularly, at least. He’s got a brand new piece, "Our Man in Cambridge," that goes along with this companion piece by Steve Schrage called, "The Spies Who Hijacked America." Welcome back to the show, Matt. How are you doing, sir?
Matt Taibbi: Good, how are you?
Horton: I’m doing great. And you know what? I’m so glad that you’re focusing again on "Untitled-gate" here. I was pretty sad when you sort of abandoned that project for other things because I am just so curious about the origins of this gigantic Russiagate hoax, which, as my friend Dave Smith says, is as big a deal as if the accusations had been true. If everything they said about Donald Trump was true, the fact that it wasn’t is as big deal as that would have been. That’s what a crime it is that the FBI and the CIA falsely accused the president of treason for three years.
Taibbi: Yeah, it’s funny when the story first broke in, I guess it was the end of December of 2016 when it first started becoming really a big, big deal. I remember saying to another journalist, "if this is true, it’s the biggest story ever. And if it isn’t true, it’s the biggest." Because there was no other explanation as either as to be historic setup or, you know, historic kind of espionage tale. So it looks like the former.
Horton: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of us knew from the very beginning. If people want to check the archives, I first interviewed Jeffrey Carr, the computer security expert, in July of 2016 about how CrowdStrike and/or the FBI don’t know who hacked into servers. The only people in the world who could know who hacked them is the NSA because they have God-like omniscient power of being able to rewind the entire internet and trace every packet wherever they want. No one else can do that. And no expert examining the server can tell you for sure who had been there, because it’s too easy to fake it. In this case, the tracks they left were so obvious, where they had references to "Iron Felix" and all these Cyrillic letters dumped in there and all this stuff. Pretty obviously, you know…
Taibbi: From from a journalistic standpoint, the idea that we identify the source of the hack by somebody writing "Felix Edmundovich" in the code, it’s pretty ridiculous. It’s as if somebody wrote "Allen Dulles" in the middle of the Stuxnet code
Taibbi: You know what I mean? It would be very silly to think that would actually happen, you know?
Horton: So anyway, So we have the different parts of this. And I sure would like to see your very meanest work on the hacking and leaking of those emails. I know this is a subject that you have not really focused the most on. But you know, your most recent work here, of course, is about the Steele Dossier and the group of retired old spies at Cambridge University and all of this. Steele was a part of that also, involved essentially in the framing of Page and Papadopoulos. Certainly Page. I don’t know about Papadopoulos. That’s, I guess, a different question. But anyway, so you have this new whistleblower. And so I guess I want to ask you just first of all, if you can explain who is Stephen Schrage? And why is it that it took him so long to come forward and tell the story here?
Taibbi: Yeah, so Steven Schrage. He was a former State Department official, also was the chief of staff from Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. He was, you know, a fairly senior official in the Romney campaign in 2008, left government after he left the Brown office in the early two-thousand-tens, decided to go into academia and ended up pursuing a doctorate under Stephen Harper, who is the central figure in the old "Spygate" narrative, right? So he was the retired quasi-retired FBI-slash-CIA person who was teaching at Cambridge. And Schrage worked for Halper, and in fact is the reason that Halper met people like Carter Page, because he invited Page to a conference in circumstances that are quite humorous. We can get into that later. But to answer your question of why it took him so long to come forward, his take on this is that he didn’t know until Halper was named in the news, which I think was in May of 2018, that any of this had had any kind of like FBI significance to it. And he felt that he was a little bit conflicted, he said. He says he felt that his best shot to bring this story forward would be to go to the authorities. He did go to the Durham investigators last year, and then he came back again this year, and he decided to go public when he became concerned that perhaps that investigation was not going to end up being effective.
Horton: I think he kind of accidentally unearthed this old audio that…
Taibbi: Yes. So his relationship with Halper has deteriorated over the years, Halper being his doctoral advisor. And he says that with Halper’s permission, he had begun taping exchanges with with Halper as early as 2015, so that really so that he could go back and point out to him inconsistencies in his academic advice, I think is the idea. So he has lots of tape of Halper talking, and the two of them during these conversations. And after he met with the Durham people, the first time, he went back and reviewed some of those conversations, and some of them he didn’t expect to hear anything terribly interesting. But in one of them, it was two days before the big leak involving Michael Flynn. If you remember that story, the one that was written in the Washington Post involving reporting to David Ignatius, and he’s asking Halper, "Hey, do you think would be a good idea for me to go try to work for Michael Flynn who is now the National Security Advisor?" This guy had a long record of working with Republican politicians, you know, why not? And Halper says, "No, I don’t think he’s going to be around very long."
Horton: In fact, let’s just put that conversation here.
Horton: So what did we just hear?
Taibbi: Okay. Yeah. So basically this is January 10, 2017, and that’s two days before the Washington Post came out with this story that ended up having enormous consequences because the January 12 story said that Flynn had been on the phone with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak. And as a result of that leak, which incidentally was an illegal leak of telephonic surveillance, the FBI decided to re-interview Flynn. It was a result of that re-interview that they built their false statements charge and prosecuted Flynn. So the notion that somebody would know two days before that leak happened that Flynn was in deep trouble that he was not going to be around for very long, and that "if you know how these things work," and that his opponents and so-called enemies are going to "turn up the heat" and all that stuff, it’s very suggestive of, you know, perhaps foreknowledge that something bad was going to happen to Flynn. From Schrage’s point of view, in the way he puts it was like, "I would have thought that the last person who would have job security issues in the Trump administration would be Flynn because he one of the only people who have real experience in Trump’s inner circle." But, you know, the tapes incident suggests otherwise.
Horton: David Ignatius, for people who aren’t familiar, he’s widely known as the CIA’s man at the Post. One of many, I guess. But when he writes, he’s always very, you know, keyed into what the intelligence community is saying, is really sort of the Mouth of Sauron for them in that way kind of, right?
Taibbi: I can’t speak to his background. But certainly the idea that he’s very plugged into the CIA is kind of a known thing in the business.
Horton: And we already know, right, that James Clapper, who right up until then was the Director of National Intelligence, I forget now the context of how we know that he had ordered this hit piece in the Post and said "now is the time to take the kill shot." So from there, it seems like Ignatius, Halper and Clapper… that’s another sort of confirmation, right that Halper really knew something and wasn’t just making a wild guess here, and that then that would mean the director of the National Intelligence was in on it as well.
Taibbi: Yeah, well, I believe the "killshot" quote came from Flynn’s second lawyer, Sidney Powell, who talked about… who theorized the leak traveled…
Horton: Oh, I’m sorry about that if I screwed that up. I could have swore that was what I had read, that somebody had essentially caught Clapper giving that order.
Taibbi: Yeah, so no, it came from Powell’s court filing.
Horton: For some reason I thought that that was what Clapper had told Ignatius. "You know what, pull the trigger on that article we’ve been waiting on here."
Taibbi: Yeah, but she just described it as Clapper. So yeah, "Powell also referenced a purported conversation between former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, claiming Clapper told the reporter words to the effect of ‘take the kill shot on Flynn,’ after he reportedly obtained the transcript of Flynn’s phone calls." And then Clapper denied it.
Horton: I gotcha. So, what other indications do we have other than this guy…
Taibbi: Steven Schrage.
Horton: Okay, and what all indications do we have of, you know, other than just the way Halper sounded on that audio, that Halper was not just doing this with his friends, but was in league with the American intelligence agencies or even British MI-6?
Taibbi: Well, he, he didn’t know that at the time. He only found out subsequently. At least that’s his story. But, you know, if you’re putting two and two together. And remember, Powell, who was Flynn’s lawyer, had theorized that the leak had gone through the Office of Net Assessment, which is a Pentagon office that was Halper’s employer. They paid Halper enormous sums of money, like over $400,000 during this period for these mysterious reports. So the theory is that the leak goes from somebody to the Office of Net Assessment to perhaps Halper. Or at least I think that’s what’s being suggested there.
Horton: Yeah, I mean, well, you know, the Pentagon was certainly paying him all that money all that time for something. No other apparent publications by him at that time or any other thing, right, so seems pretty cut and dry.
Taibbi: So, no, I mean, that’s a pretty that’s actually quite a funny subplot two this whole thing is how the whole Office of Net Assessment thing works. You know, it appears to be just a way to funnel money to informants and other people who are useful to the government. And essentially what they do, and I actually talked to some people who contributed to some of these reports, the ONA will pay somebody like $50,000 for a report on say China’s position in the world right now, right? And, and what the American will do is they will call up some person in a foreign country and offer them peanuts to put together basically a bunch of text around open source material, they send it back to him, he compiles it into a big document, sends it back to the Pentagon, does basically zero work and makes probably 10 times what the highest paid journalist in the world gets paid to do that same kind of stuff. So it’s pretty amazing. It’s amazing little subplot to the whole thing.
Horton: Although, I mean, in this case, it doesn’t even seem like he was turning in those phony reports. He was getting paid. It seems like there’s a very good chance it was for this.
Taibbi: Well, yeah, superficially, you can make the argument and there’s a whistleblower case involving this that’s coming out right now unrelated to Schrage, but there’s somebody in the Office of Net Assessment, who was claiming essentially that these payments were exactly for that kind of activity. If you’re interested in looking for this kind of thing, for instance, you can look for a document called "China: The Three Warfares," and that’ll be online somewhere. You’ll see Halper didn’t really write anything in it, but I think he got paid something like $47,000 for this.
Horton: What a racket.
Horton: All right now, so this guy, Schrage, he coined this new term, "the Cambridge Four," it’s not just Halper, but it’s also Richard Dearlove — and of course Dearlove, the former head of MI-6 is most famous for having compiled the Downing Street Memos about the meeting at the so-called Crawford ranch in July of 2002, about how "we’ve decided that the policy is that we’re going to war and the facts are being fixed around the policy." That was his job there.
Horton: So, anyway, that’s what we know about Dearlove from before. He was the head of MI-6 at the time that the British helped lie us into war. And then there’s also of course Steele, he groups into this, and so maybe that’s an opportunity to talk a little bit more about his background as well. And then there’s this other guy, Christopher Andrew, who I think is would probably be the least known of the four. And you know, in terms of the broader public in terms of his role in all of this, but you guys both make the case that these four really were kind of working together throughout 2016 to gin this thing up. I think as you put it, then something really bad happened: Trump won anyway. This was supposed to stop him. And then once Trump won, now they’re in real trouble. So do they back down? No, they double-down. Right?
Taibbi: Exactly. Yeah. It’s funny, though a lot of people, when they look at this scandal, imagine that it was this overwhelming, devastating conspiracy that involves, you know, really intense planning and tons of resources. And I don’t really think it played out that way. I think what you have here is a group of people who had an immediate financial interest in producing research. So somebody along the line and this is the part that we don’t really know yet. Somebody got it got it into their heads in 2015 or early 2016 that the Trump campaign had some kind of untoward relationship with the Russians. And at some point, the Democrats got interested in that topic and decided that they wanted to make political hay out of it, at which point they hired Fusion GPS and instructed them essentially to really look into the Russia issue. Fusion GPS, then hires Steele who was a former officer who had been stationed in Russia and had some expertise there, ran this private investigatory firm called Orbis, but he also had a relationship with Dearlove who was at Cambridge, and Dearlove had a relationship with Halper. So the two big wings of the pre-election investigatory effort involves Steele, who is getting paid very significant sums of money to produce research suggesting that Trump had all these relations with the Russians, and then there was Halper, who was also getting paid a lot of money to do the surveillance on Trump figures. And the interesting thing here is the sort of cross-pollination between those two plotlines. One seems to be ending up confirming the other and vice-versa. Carter Page gets invited to Cambridge by Schrage, Halper and Dearlove sees him there and then a week later Carter Page appears in Steele’s reports for the first time. And nobody even knew who this guy was before that. So that’s what’s interesting about this whole thing is that a lot of the stuff that ended up in the news later on really had their roots in just a couple of characters in this British University.
Horton: We’ll get back to Papadopoulos here in a minute, but we know now, we found out relatively recently that the FBI discounted the Papadopoulos thing right away. I think the IG report said they decided "forget the Papadopoulos, we’re going to go with this Page thing." So they really hung the FISA warrant applications and all of that on Page and his alleged connections to the Russians. And then this ought to be the biggest scandal of all, it almost always goes unmentioned, is the CIA told the FBI, "this guy belongs to us," and the FBI blacked that out of their FISA application and pretended to not know that. And then think about this Matt: for three years, all those leaks from all those spooks to all those newspapers and TV stations, and nobody ever leaked that "Page belongs to the agency. He’s a loyal American patriot and when he met with the Russians, he came straight to us and told us everything." They never leaked that in three years. We only found that out this spring in the IG report, right?
Taibbi: Yeah, absolutely. That was outrageous on multiple levels. It was outrageous that that nobody mentioned any of the news reporters that Michael Flynn had told his agency about his planned trip to the RT dinner, and seems to have done a little little bit of reporting back to the DIA during that trip. And I think what’s most outrageous is the thing that you mentioned up top, which is that in August of 2016, the FBI concluded — this is literally within weeks after they commenced this investigation — they concluded, the direct quote is, "the evidence didn’t particularly indicate that George Papadopoulos was having any kind of interactions with Russians." So they were admitting within weeks of starting the investigation that the entire predicate for the investigation was incorrect. And was for that reason that they moved on to Page, and as you say, they suppressed the evidence that might have might have exonerated him, or or prevented the surveillance from from going forward. And there’s some stuff that Schrage has on that too, by the way. But yeah, absolutely. The scandal here is not only that they they did all that stuff, but they kept telling reporters to dig into these questions years after they’d already moved on from them.
Horton: Right. I mean, that really goes to show how dirty it all was that they were completely over it and continued anyway. You mentioned about how it doesn’t seem like Brennan and Comey and a couple others had a big meeting and said, "Okay, we’re going to frame Trump for treason with Russia," in this kind of over-the-top way. But the way that the conspiracy developed, essentially was that the FBI counterintelligence division and the CIA were pretending to believe this stuff, right? Like in the case of Papadopoulos , they couldn’t even pretend to believe that anymore. So they threw that out. But I know you’ve mentioned this numerous times. To me the first thing- I didn’t even finish reading the Steele Dossier when it first came out because as soon as I got to the part that said that the Russians offered Carter Page a 19% ownership stake in the Russian state government-owned oil company Rosneft, which would have been worth billions of dollars, on the successful accomplishment of him seizing control of America’s sanctions policy from the Congress and getting all the sanctions on Russia lifted, I thought that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
Horton: And I’m supposed to believe that Comey read that and was really concerned? And he had his guys go to the FISA court because of this unheard of Benedict Arnold action by this active CIA asset. And I want to be clear, not "officer." He wasn’t a CIA officer. He was a CIA asset, literally speaking, working for the CIA, as he’s going on his regular trips to Russia to meet with business people, right?
Taibbi: Yeah. I don’t know what the term technically would be. But yes, he was giving information to them and had been for a couple of years and was in good standing with them. So the whole thing is preposterous. Yeah, the first time I read the Steele Dossier, there were so many red flags in there, that it just read like a really ridiculous piece of fiction. To me, it reminded me a lot of the Graham Green book Our Man in Havana, which is about a vacuum cleaner salesman who becomes a spy and decides to just send pictures of giant vacuum cleaners back to the home office in London, making them think that the Cubans are building one in the jungle. And they buy it, you know, and that’s what happened here. It was a bunch of goons are sort of making up a bunch of stories, but the the irony is that, yes, it turned into a real investigation. They bought it.
Horton: And they ruined the lives of so many people, like this lady, Svetlana Lokhova. Have you talked to her? Tell us about that. Because I think this was one of the more harmful aspects of this. It didn’t get too much play in the media, I don’t think, but it did get played in terms of how it affected Mike Flynn in his job, or in the case against him, right?
Taibbi: Yes. This is a very dark story and I’ve worked on this and haven’t been able to really tell all of it, but the outlines of it are as follows. In February of 2014, Michael Flynn who was then Barack Obama’s the head of the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, he visited Cambridge, and he was at an official dinner, and during that dinner he was sitting at a table where he was surrounded by two of these figures, Christopher Andrew and Richard Dearlove, and then a fourth person was this woman Svetlana Lokhova who was a doctoral candidate under Andrew. And at that dinner she showed Flynn an old postcard written by Stalin that she had uncovered during a trip to Russia to look through the old NKVD-KGB archives, and they had a conversation lasting about 10 minutes. The entire thing was supervised and surrounded by these sort of luminaries of British intelligence. And nobody said anything about it for two years. And then after all this nonsense started in the summer of 2016, suddenly Halper — who was there that night, although he wasn’t at the dinner — Dearlove, and then later also Andrew ended up sounding the alarm and saying that that Flynn had been seduced by a Russian national at that dinner. And this is something I know for a fact, which is that multiple members of the U.S. media were told by American sources that Flynn was actively having an affair with a Russian agent around that time. And if you go back and look you’ll find that at that time there were a series of news stories that started to come out in December 2016. And then in March of 2017, about Flynn’s interaction with this woman. And it all came from this idea that these these goofballs cooked up that Flynn had been seduced in that five or ten minute conversation by a Russian, because it was the only conversation with a Russian that anybody could think that he had, which is crazy.
Horton: Yeah, and as Schrage says in his piece about this, this woman, as you just mentioned, was Andrew’s student. And he says at that time in 2014, she was a brand new mother and they just drag this woman through the mud saying that she is a spy, a honeypot, working for Vladimir Putin to suborn Mike Flynn and compromise him in all this treason. I guess you said you talked to her. This really destroyed her life to a great degree, right?
Taibbi: Yeah, absolutely. And it was completely sociopathic on the part of all these people. And I talked to a bunch of the journalists who covered the story…
Horton: Like who?
Taibbi: It was all off the record. You can guess by looking at the bylines. There were only five or six major characters who covered this thing. But they all said the same thing. Basically, they were approached by Americans in late 2016. And told, you know, without any hesitation, that Flynn was having an affair with a Russian. This was this was big enough news that American reporters were flown over to London to cover it. And they dug, they tore through this woman’s personal life and they eventually put her name out there. And they never had any kind of real indication that anything had happened.
Horton: Well, and they didn’t just pick up the phone and call DIA and say "When this guy was your boss, did you guys have any indication that he was sleeping with the enemy?" How about that for a dog that didn’t bark?
Taibbi: Well and he had passed security clearances multiple times after that, which tells you that whatever these informants thought, they certainly didn’t raise any alarm about it for a significant period of time, for years at least. So the whole thing was was absurd on its face, and I think that a good reporter would have run run screaming in the other direction from the story because there’s just there’s no there there, you know, but they did it anyway. And what was amazing about that is that it led ultimately to the exposure of Halper because he was one of the people who alerted the FBI to this nefarious connection between Flynn and this woman. And his name eventually came out in the newspapers, but they were far more concerned about protecting the identity of Halper than they were about Svetlana Lokhova. So the whole thing was crazy.
Horton: Yeah. And then, but, you know, it really is just like the Iraq war. You made that comparison in your writing before, where, you know, the case for the war against Iraq was about 10 or 15 points long, and every single one of them was zero.
Horton: But a hawk could keep talking all day about why we have to do it. It’s just at the end of his talk, 15 times zero is still zero. None of it’s true. It’s all lies, but it’s like 15 lies. And so it’s the same kind of thing with this: people talking about, "Where there’s smoke, there’s fire." But it’s not smoke, it’s steam. It’s hot air. It’s all bs, but there’s so much of it, when people want to believe, there’s enough there for them to believe in. You know, we saw the way people got caught up in this. The entire cult of not the left, but the liberal sort of centrist Democratic Party types in this country, by the 10s of millions got caught up in this thing.
Taibbi: Yeah, and I think it really speaks to, you know, kind of a problem that we have with the way we do investigative journalism in this country. There’s sort of a loophole that you can drive through with national security stories, which is if somebody from one of the spy agencies or from the FBI calls up and tells you like a shaggy dog story, but says, "Hey, I’m sorry, I got to keep my name out of this," the newspapers will very frequently just run with that stuff anyway. So the normal fact checking process that we would go through to check all kinds of other things, we just don’t do that with this kind of story, which is one of the reasons the Iraq thing happened. Right. So it looks somebody in the military tells Judith Miller that, "Hey, we know we’ve got something just over the next hill that proves he’s got the WMDs," but it’s a nameless, faceless source, right? That stuff ends up in the newspapers with amazing frequency. That happened over and over and over again with this Russia story. You know, they just kept driving through that loophole.
Horton: Yep. And then of course, the other thing is, you have to have two sources. But who’s to say they’re not, you know, coming up with a list together of “here are the journalists we’re going to lie to. I’m going to call him on Tuesday. You call him on Wednesday, and we’ll have it in the paper by Thursday.”
Taibbi: Right. Yeah, exactly. Or the classic construction of an intelligence source who tells a somebody in a congressional committee that’s like the House or Senate Intel committees. And so the congressional source tells their source to call up the reporter, and then puts the person in touch with the original source, but it’s a game of telephone. It’s not like you’re getting the story independently confirmed by another source. It’s just the same story that ran through two people. And that’s the problem that you have with these kinds of stories is that when the names aren’t made public, you can’t tell whether it’s just one narrative that’s been passed around an office, or whether it’s something that actually multiple people can confirm.
Horton: Yeah. And we actually had the argument ad-absurdum on this sort of thing just recently with the story about the Russians paying for American scalps in Afghanistan, where the next day after the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post put out this story, on Twitter all the reporters were telling each other "my story is confirmed by his story, which is confirmed by the other story." And yet all they say is "anonymous sources tell us." They have no evidence and no compelling narrative whatsoever. In fact, over the next couple of weeks, as they tried to create a compelling narrative, it all completely fell apart. And no one was willing to stand by the story and so it was all dead. But Charlie Savage really thought that when Warren Strobel wrote the same thing, that "See, I’m right." And he didn’t even know how foolish he sounded. And I pick on Charlie Savage because I used to respect him a little bit.
Taibbi: Yeah. Actually, I often thought that he was one of the better reporters that the Times had. But you know, this is an example. That story is a prime example of how this stuff works. Who among the American press corps, is going to be able to confirm that some warlord in Afghanistan got a bag of money to go assassinate Americans? That’s an unconfirmable story. The only way we’re going to ever get to that story is, is by the Americans who actually came up with it. And it could be the same anonymous source talking to five different newspapers. So they’re not confirming each other. They’re just confirming that they heard a story.
Horton: Yep. And in fact, one more I’m sorry, It just came to mind and is so important, I think. Although I’m not sure how much of an impact it made, but last Saturday, the New York Times in the weekend magazine ran a 10,000 word hit piece on Donald Trump, essentially by the CIA. And I gotta tell you that I bet you a third or two thirds of it is true about how completely stupid Trump is. You can’t even talk to him in pictures anymore. And all he wants to talk about is his inauguration crowd size again, and this kind of garbage. I more or less believe it. But at the same time, what the hell is going on here? Another giant hit piece with what, 15 different CIA people went and talked to this reporter for this gigantic weekend magazine expose on Trump. And all it is is CIA guys complaining about the president. Who the hell do they think they are, these people? You know?
Taibbi: And Bernie Sanders.
Horton: Yeah, of course.
Taibbi: That story, right? They talked about the NIE. Yeah, and I think what bothers me is somebody who kind of grew up in this business is that there was a time period where the normal attitude of somebody who worked in the news media was to be at best distrustful of people who work for the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, to a lesser extent. It was less of a thing back then. But now it’s like these people are the biggest stars in the world, and whatever they say is like gospel. And it’s not only that they get to say whatever they want in these newspapers, basically without any pushback, that, you know, they leave these agencies and immediately get million dollar positions on television and cable news. It’s like, you know, there’s just no skepticism that’s built into the media system about about information that comes from these folks anymore. And that’s that’s really depressing.
Horton: Yeah, well, and you can see why people believe Earth is flat, or God knows what, because the same people who told them the Earth is round are the same people who lie to them about everything. And so they don’t know where to draw the line. They don’t understand. They know that it’s not the way TV and the newspapers say. So maybe it is this Q-Anon thing. Or maybe it is Vladimir Putin. Or maybe it’s some off-the-wall explanation because whatever it is, the common narrative delivered to us daily doesn’t make sense. You know? It doesn’t hold up, and so if these are the people we have to rely on, you know, people turn their back, but then which way do they go? Next thing you know they’re having a protest burning masks, or whatever it is because they’re caught up in who knows what.
Taibbi: Yeah. And I think you brought up a good example there with the press attitude towards the Covid coverage. We went through these amazing stages right where they they first they were they were furiously angry at anybody who went outside to protest the lockdowns. Then during the Black Lives Matter protests, these the exact same sources, the exact same op ed writers simply said that it was more important to protest than it was to worry about the pandemic. And then they went back to the first thing a few weeks after that. So what’s the ordinary news consumer supposed to think watching all this? "Should I say inside? Or if I think it’s really important, can I go outside? I have no idea." And I think people in this business underestimate the impact of those kinds of inconsistencies.
Horton: Well, and you know, I’m sorry, because I hate the media so much, and you’re so good at talking about that. But I wanted to touch on a couple of more details here real quick if it’s okay. The recent revelations just in the last few weeks about declassified testimony from the House and Senate hearings on this stuff, where we found out finally who Christopher Steele’s sources were after being told they were high-level Russian government employees and people who work for powerful oligarchs and all this stuff this whole time. It turns out that what now? Where did he get this stuff?
Taibbi: From a Washington-based analysts from the Brookings Institution named Igor Danchenko, who didn’t live in-country. He did travel to Russia for the story, but in an affidavit the FBI released where they interview him, he says he didn’t have any contact with any senior intelligence or any intelligence officials, that part of his M.O. was to drink heavily with the sub-sources that he talked openly about his sub-sources trying to monetize their relationship with him. It’s absurd that anybody ever took any of this stuff seriously. And if you read the FBI’s interview with this guy, you realize he was just kind of selling wolf whistles the whole time. He was openly going around telling people they can make money by giving him information. And they guessed what he wanted and gave him some information, but it’s not reliable.
Horton: Can you refresh my memory on when it was the FBI had created… It must have been right away, or early in the investigation, when they got the Steel Dossier in the summer of 2016, they created this big spreadsheet where they crossed everything off the list as possibly being reliable information, or found that anything in there that was true, had been published in the Washington Post two days before and so we know that that was where they got it, the little kernels of truth here and there. Because that was even before they had gone to the FISA court, or at least back the second time or something, right?
Taibbi: I’m not sure exactly when they did that process. I know that in the IG report, the Horowitz report, they talked about doing an analysis of how much of the original reporting in the Steele reports can be trusted, and the conclusion they essentially came to is that the true stuff in here has already been publicly reported. So (laughs) I don’t think they found anything original that turned out to be right in the report.
Horton: Now, so the part about this that is to me the most interesting is the very few sporadic reports… And somewhere in the back of my head, I think you had mentioned in this, in some of your "Untitled-gate" reporting, that some of these contacts with the informants and the Trump people went back even to 2015. I can’t remember if that involved Halper or Papadopoulos. But also I don’t know the role of the Misfud and who originally put Misfud on the case of Papadopoulos. I guess the most I know about the Papadopoulos thing is from Michael Tracy’s interview with him where he talks about how he went and got this job and how immediately they were trying to set him up and figure out a way to put pro-Russian words in his mouth or some kind of thing. But who exactly was Misfud? And what was his role in this? And beginning when? I guess are to me the biggest questions. And same for Halper. What was the very first time that they started this put-on?
Taibbi: We don’t really know. My theory about how this began early-on was was based on some things that I heard a couple of years ago that I haven’t been able to really suss out since. We know for sure that by late July of 2016, that people were actively trying to approach both Papadopoulos and Page. Schrage’s account, you know, this is the guy that I’m talking to now, in his telling basically, they don’t start getting interested in Page until the second week of July 2016. And that’s basically when Dearlove runs into Page at this conference at Cambridge. And suddenly it seems like everybody’s interested in Page and any other Trump contacts. But the question of Misfud is really still one of the outstanding mysteries of this whole thing. Like where is this guy? Who is he? It’s pretty clear that the even the FBI didn’t believe that he was actually a Russian agent. He was in the U.S. briefly. I believe it was January of 2017 and released, interviewed and let go. So he couldn’t possibly have ever really been a suspected Russian spy. And yet they constructed the entire investigation based on the idea that he was one. So the whole thing doesn’t make any sense. I mean, it seems like it was much ado about nothing from the start.
Horton: And, you know, this is not concrete. But I think the timeline is pretty indicative of a set-up here where Assange announced on I think June 14, that "Yeah, we’ve got some Hillary emails coming out here soon," this kind of thing. And that gave the CIA three days heads up to come up with this Guccifer crap to try to sort of insinuate, you know, Russian, I guess, Cyrillic letters as part of it from from Guccifer’s thing. Wikileaks never published that stuff, but it’s sort of like with the Flynn accusations with this woman. "Well, it could be true… Men and women do have sex sometimes," or something. So yes, it could be true that these emails all come from the same source, it sort of seems that way. And then that was right around the same time, the beginning of summer 2016. Seems like they decided "Whatever we can do to bring up the word Russia in the context of Trump, we’re going to try to do that, and blame them for the sabotage of Hillary Clinton."
Taibbi: Yeah. The other time was really interesting. I have to admit that that’s part of the story that I haven’t looked at a whole lot. To be honest, the reason I haven’t is because my technical chops are not so hot in terms of being able to assess who is and who could have and who maybe didn’t try to hack the DNC, but certainly the all the release testimony that came out, suggests they had, they never had anything like a concrete indication that there was any kind of relationship between the Russians, this hack, Guccifer and Julian Assange. They never concretely established any of that. It was all a series of pretty thin assumptions. Obviously, the other amazing thing about that is that they never interviewed Assange about it, which tells you that they weren’t interested in the answer or, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know what that means.
Horton: Yeah, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the language in the Muller report where some lawyer somewhere said "No, we have to go ahead and admit that we have nothing here." And so they say they believe the Russians did the hack, but they don’t demonstrate that. And then they admit they can’t demonstrate a chain of custody to WikiLeaks. You know, after three years of "the Russians gave it to WikiLeaks," Robert Mueller admitted that he had no causal chain, sorry.
Taibbi: Yeah, there’s just mountains of testimony and investigation of the question of you know, whether or not there was foreknowledge or whether or not there was a relationship there, but they’ve never actually come up with anything that proves any of that story. And also, that was all going on independently of these of these other two prongs of the story with Steele and the spying. Like, I don’t know, to what degree that they might have been connected. But, you know, either way, it was all seemingly pretty absurd.
Horton: Yeah. You know, the whole thing about the Logan Act, we’re now and this is where Joe Biden comes in, is that Biden apparently was the one who brought up "Hey, maybe we can use the Logan Act as an excuse against Flynn here." And Sally Yates at DOJ also said, "Oh, yeah, when I read the transcripts of the conversation between Flynn and Kislyak, and then I knew what he had said to the FBI, I thought ‘Oh, no! Now the Russians have compromised him because he’s breaking the Logan Act and lying about it, and so now they’ll have this over him.’" Even though the Logan Act might as well not even exist at all. And in this context, we’re not talking about a businessman from Houston making a separate deal with the UAE or something like that. We’re talking about the designated incoming national security adviser of the president elect of the United States, not in the summer, we’re talking about after the election, after the Electoral College has voted. This guy is the designated national security adviser. I mean, they might as well bring up child abuse or whatever. They’re just pretending to have a legal pretext at that point, right?
Taibbi: Yeah, especially in the context of all the other stuff that was going on with that investigation. The fact that they investigated Flynn for all these other things. They have this whole absurd Crossfire Razor sub-investigation that had come up dry. They were recommending, the people on that case were recommending that they give it up. And, you know, some folks didn’t want to, and they decided to hold on to the idea of of dirtying Flynn through this preposterous interpretation of this call to Kislyak. And the crime here, the idea that the Logan Act was violated is far less serious crime than the actual one, leaking the telephonic communication which is a felony, and that definitely happened. And you’re absolutely right that the Logan Act, even if it was something that we were ever going to prosecute, and we never have, it was not intended to cover the incoming national security adviser who was weeks away from taking power and essentially was telling the Russian ambassador, "Hey, you know, don’t overreact. Chill out." Like, that’s really what happened. So the whole thing was absurd.
Horton: Yeah, I mean, that is such an important point too. What was the secret big deal communication here is he was saying, "Don’t overreact in a tit for tat over Obama’s new sanctions, because after all, he’s on his way out. And we want to strike a better note." And, you know, this goes back to what you’re saying about Flynn at DIA. This was a three star general, who was the head of the DIA and had this whole, you know, years-long liaison relationship with the Russian military. Not that he was a traitor supported by them. He was an American three star General, who had a pretty good relationship with some powerful people in the Russian military, which is the kind of thing that all other things being equal, and no Russiagate hoax involved, is the kind of thing that all Americans ought to celebrate. And think of it, probably the best thing about this kook, Mike Flynn, who after all, is sort of a Michael Ledeen co-author, Iran hawk, nutball, who said a couple good things about Syria one time. He said a couple of good things about Russia, but is otherwise a pretty dangerous character. And yet, he gets along with the Russian military. That ought to be a bright spot in the mind of all 7 billion people in the world. Isn’t that what we want, for America and Russia to get along, no matter what?
Taibbi: Absolutely, and I think a lot of the genesis of the Democratic Party frustration and the Obama administration frustration with Flynn was that he had had an open disagreement with that administration about some pretty serious strategic questions that among other things involved the Russians. Flynn was the subject of some reporting by Sy Hersh. And essentially was going public with this idea that the Obama administration was making a mistake by trying to make allies of so called moderates in Syria, who was saying we’re not really moderates, they were more like al Qaeda, and that the preferable way to go was to team up with the Russians to to combat those kinds of extremists. And, you know, there was disagreement about that. But I could understand both the arguments for both sides of that. But the notion that he was doing something that was treasonous is crazy. It was a strategic idea that he had that you could agree with or disagree with it, but it’s certainly not outside the pale of normal behavior.
Horton: And Susan Rice pretended — again going along with this narrative that it must be treason. She said that she had a conversation with Flynn, where he should’ve just humored her. What an idiot this guy. But instead he decided to get in an argument with her about how, "Nah, Russia’s fine. Russia’s no big deal. It’s China that we’ve got to worry about." And then Rice said, "When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh no, it must be true. He really is a traitor under the control of some foreign power, because how could any American think that?’" Actually, a lot of people think that. I’m not one of them. But that’s a point of view. In fact, Trump said, "I went and talked with Henry Kissinger. And I said, ‘Henry, I think we ought to get along with Russia because the real enemy is China.’ And Henry Kissinger told me ‘You’re right, Trump go with that.’" So he’s supposed to be the longest gray beard of all. This is a strategic question: Which side of the Sino-Russian split are you on? We’re all Richard Nixon playing Risk here. Only when Trump and Flynn do it, it’s high treason.
Taibbi: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think some of that comes from Americans not having a real clue about what Russia is, you know, Russia is a geographically massive country with a pretty big military. But economically, it’s like somewhere between Italy and South Korea. It’s not a major power, it’s got very, very serious internal problems. It’s nowhere near the level of geopolitical rival that the Chinese are. Now you could say that they have a terrible government. And you could say that Putin is not a good leader. And I certainly have been very critical of him in the past. But I wouldn’t put Russia in the same category as, say, China in terms of the size of the rivalry there.
Horton: I know you lived there for many years and that kind of thing. For most of us, Russia is a place in our imagination. We don’t really know anything about it. And on one hand our government, say John McCain for example, who said "Oh, come on, Russia is a gas station with a border. It’s not even a country at all." Obama ridiculed them and said, "Russia is a regional power at best." But then they turn around and say, "Actually Russia’s intelligence agencies are responsible for the election results of every country everywhere in a world where we don’t like how they turn out. And they’re about to take over and conquer all of Eastern Europe again, like back in the bad old days."
Taibbi: Right. I mean, in 2012, Obama was essentially saying the Russia "is the gnat on the bottom of an elephant," which I thought was a pretty good description, having lived there. The old description of the Soviet Union, that I think Henry Kissinger said, was that "Russia is Upper Volta with rockets." You know, it’s a country with a big military, it’s powerful in that sense. It certainly exerts a lot of influence on the countries that are on its borders, but internationally, it’s just not this chaotic juggernaut that they’re making it out to be in the press. And it doesn’t have anywhere near the economic power of China.
Horton: Alright, so then one last thing here is about the effect of this have on Trump. Say, for example, if they had never cooked up this Russiagate thing in the first place. And the President had been free to pursue this Russia policy in the same way that any other president would have been. I mean, for that matter, Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev, when he was the, you know, Supreme Leader of the Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Communist Party, and all of these things. And so, nevermind the opportunity costs of just what could have been in terms of progress, but just think of how backwards everything is going. You know, I interviewed Branco Marcetic from Jacobin magazine last week about all the anti-Russia positions that Trump has taken over and over again, and to a great degree, even in his own words, to protect himself from these attacks. "They keep accusing me of being soft on Russia. Well I’m not soft on Russia. I’ve done this, this and this." Including he’s pulling troops out of Germany, but he’s moving them to Poland, which is even worse. And, you know, I’m sure you’ve got something to say about what might have been here if we, if our government was not caught up in this crazy narrative that they themselves have generated about Russia here.
Taibbi: Yeah. You know, I was not a fan of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t think I’ll be voting for him again, but the the degree to which all of this handicapped his presidency and all the things that happened, particularly during the transition period, when there are all these leaks, was about Flynn or about the pee tape, or handing Trump the Steele report. He entered the presidency basically from day one facing a DEFCON 5 emergency. And you know, I would argue that this is a person who, under the best circumstances would have had a difficult time doing a great job because he probably, you know, he doesn’t have the experience and it would have been a rough ride anyway. But with this going on, I think it was inexcusable. What the press and all these these creatures in the intelligence services did to handicap the presidency — I get not liking Donald Trump, but this is also the country you know, that suffered when all this took up all of our time for three years. You know, it was was really ridiculous. And so yeah, you’re right on that.
Horton: There’s got to be some kind of accountability. I can’t imagine someone publishing Jane Mayer again, for example, or David Corn. We’re going to continue to use people who, you know went so far out on the limb with this garbage? — and boy there’s exhaustive list of them. I guess I should say exhausting.
Taibbi: There’s a long history of failing upward in the journalism business, right? Like the people who were the most wrong on Iraq tended to get promoted upward. I mean, look at who’s editing The Atlantic magazine right now. You know, people like Jonathan Chait and the editorial page editor of the Washington Post who got so much wrong. I mean, basically Judy Miller was the only one who paid. Everybody else kind of got away with it. And that’s another thing. We talked about this earlier, that’s the thing: that the public sees the stuff. You know, people in journalism think that the audiences aren’t paying attention, but they do pay attention. When we screw things up there has to be some kind of reckoning, or else we lose our credibility.
Horton: Although, you know, what you talk about in your book, about all the different "silos" of information, you can see that there are huge swathes of the liberal side who still believe in this stuff because they were never made to confront the failure of the story when it all came out. They kind of had a narrative that "well, Bob Muller gave an old man rambling testimony to the Senate," but they didn’t break down here’s what the report actually said about all that stuff that we said. They just let it go. And so you see on Twitter, of course, but really everywhere you see Democrats still believe that, in the words of recent rando I saw that, "Vladimir Putin sure got his money’s worth with Trump." As Nancy Pelosi said, just in the recent Afghanistan scalp story, that "all roads lead back to Putin." She said the same thing during the impeachment. They really still believe this stuff.
Taibbi: I know. You know, there was a woman who recently resigned from MSNBC, Ariana Pekary, and she wrote a note publicly saying part of the reason she she quit is because she had come to the conclusion or she quoted one of her co-workers basically saying that, "we’re not in the business of informing, we’re in the business of comforting our audiences." So, you know, they believe the Russia thing, and there’s news that comes out that contradicts it, they just don’t put it out there because they know it’s going to upset their audiences. So they just allow them to kind of wallow in their ignorance, which is, I think a disservice.
Horton: Alright, well, listen. Thank you so much for coming back on the show, Matt. It’s always great talking to you and reading your great journalism.
Taibbi: Thanks Scott.
Horton: The book is Hate Inc., and you’ve got to subscribe at Substack — which, by the way, can I ask you a favor? Is there a way that I can get you to turn off the paywall on "Our Man in Cambridge," for a couple of days so we can link to it at Antiwar.com?
Taibbi: (Laughs.) I’ll try, yeah. I’ll ask the Substack guys to do that.
Horton: We ran "The Spies Who Hijacked America" by Steven Schrage there as our Spotlight the other day and I’d like to Spotlight "Our Man in Cambridge" as well.
Horton: But you gotta subscribe. He’s independent from Rolling Stone, now at Substack.com. And of course you can follow him on Twitter and all those great things. And again, his show is called Useful Idiots with Katie Halper. And thank you again. Appreciate it.
Taibbi: Alright, thanks. Take care.Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He’s the author of the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan and editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,000 interviews since 2003. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon.