Half the country hates Donald Trump, and even the half that thinks he’s doing a good job often flinch from his boorishness, his nasty public attacks, sometimes even on his own aides. For all the top talent he says he’s surrounded himself with, the president repeatedly attracts among the worst that Washington—and New York—have to offer. No doubt that’s one reason why whatever is thrown at him seems to stick.
At the same time, there is a growing consensus among reporters and thinkers on the left and right—especially those who know anything about Russia, the surveillance apparatus, and intelligence bureaucracy—that the Russiagate-collusion theory that was supposed to end Trump’s presidency within six months has sprung more than a few holes. Worse, it has proved to be a cover for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement bureaucracies to break the law, with what’s left of the press gleefully going along for the ride. Where Watergate was a story about a crime that came to define an entire generation’s oppositional attitude toward politicians and the country’s elite, Russiagate, they argue, has proved itself to be the reverse: It is a device that the American elite is using to define itself against its enemies—the rest of the country.
Yet for its advocates, the questionable veracity of the Russiagate story seems much less important than what has become its real purpose—elite virtue-signaling. Buy into a storyline that turns FBI and CIA bureaucrats and their hand-puppets in the press into heroes while legitimizing the use of a vast surveillance apparatus for partisan purposes, and you’re in. Dissent, and you’re out, or worse—you’re defending Trump.
Recently, a writer on The New Yorker blog named Adrian Chen gave voice to the central dilemma facing young media professionals who struggle to balance their need for social approval with the demands of fact-based analysis in the age of Trump. In an article pegged to special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of the Internet Research Agency, Chen referenced an article he had written about the IRA for The New York Times Magazine several years ago. After the Mueller indictments were announced, Chen was called on to lend his expertise regarding Russian troll farms and their effect on the American public sphere—an offer he recognized immediately as a can’t-win proposition.
“Either I could stay silent,” wrote Chen, “and allow the conversation to be dominated by those pumping up the Russian threat, or I could risk giving fodder to Trump and his allies.”
In other words, there’s the truth, and then there’s what’s even more important—sticking it to Trump. Choose wrong, even inadvertently, Chen explained, no matter how many times you deplore Trump, and you’ll be labeled a Trumpkin. That’s what happened to Facebook advertising executive Rob Goldman, who was obliged to apologize to his entire company in an internal message for having shared with the Twitter public the fact that “the majority of the Internet Research Agency’s Facebook ads were purchased after the election.” After Trump retweeted Goldman’s thread to reaffirm that Vladimir Putin had nothing to do with his electoral victory, the Facebook VP was lucky to still have a job.
Chen’s article serves to explain why Russiagate is so vital to The New Yorker, despite the many headaches that each new weekly iteration of the story must be causing for the magazine’s fact-checkers. According to British court documents, The New Yorker was one of the publications that former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele briefed in September 2016 on the findings in his now-notorious dossier. In a New Yorker profile of Steele this week—portraying the spy-for-corporate-hire as a patriotic hero and laundering his possible criminal activities—Jane Mayer explains that she was personally briefed by Steele during that time period.
The New Yorker has produced tons of Russiagate stories, including a small anthology of takes on the Mueller indictments alone. Of course there’s one by the recently-hired Adam Entous, the former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the news that the Washington firm Fusion GPS, which produced the Steele dossier, had been hired by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee—a story that helped Fusion GPS relieve some of the pressure congressional inquiries had put on the firm to release its bank records. No doubt Entous will continue to use his sources, whoever they are, to break more such stories at The New Yorker.
One person at The New Yorker who won’t get on board with the story is Masha Gessen. Born in Moscow, Gessen knows first-hand how bad Putin is and dislikes Trump only a little less than she dislikes the Russian strongman. Yet in a recent New Yorker piece, Gessen mocked Mueller’s indictments: “Trump’s tweet about Moscow laughing its ass off was unusually (perhaps accidentally) accurate,” she wrote. “Loyal Putinites and dissident intellectuals alike are remarkably united in finding the American obsession with Russian meddling to be ridiculous.”
Another native Russian-speaking reporter, Julia Ioffe, formerly with The New Republic and more recently, The Atlantic, has some similar reservations. In a September 2016 article for Politico, she threw cold water on the legend of Carter Page, master spy and wheeler-dealer. As Ioffe reported, virtually no one in Moscow had ever heard of Page.
From the beginning, Gessen saw the collusion story as dangerous, not because she supported Trump but because it fed into a fantasy that convinced Trump’s opponents that they need not bother with the difficult and boring work of procedural politics. And who were the would-be agents of America’s salvation? Spies—the former British spy allegedly responsible for the dossier and countless American intelligence officials using anonymous press leaks to manipulate the American public.
“The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story,” Gessen wrote in The New York Review of Books nearly a year ago, “is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect.”
The specter of an intelligence bureaucracy working in tandem with the press to preserve the prerogatives of a ruling clique is the kind of thing that someone who knows Russia from the inside and actually fears the specter of authoritarian government would naturally find worrying. And not surprisingly, concerns over the role of the intelligence community and its increasingly intrusive methods motivate other Russiagate critics on the left, like Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept, historian Jackson Lears writing at the London Review of Books, and Stephen Cohen at The Nation.
“One of the most bizarre aspects of Russiagate,” writes Lears, “is the magical transformation of intelligence agency heads into paragons of truth-telling—a trick performed not by reactionary apologists for domestic spying, as one would expect, but by people who consider themselves liberals.”
Cohen, a distinguished if often overly sympathetic historian of the Soviet Union, was even more alarmed. “Was Russiagate produced by the primary leaders of the US intelligence community?” asks Cohen, referring to former CIA director John Brennan as well as ex-FBI chief James Comey. “If so, it is the most perilous political scandal in modern American history and the most detrimental to American democracy.”
Yes, the left hates Trump. I didn’t vote for him, either. But what Gessen, Greenwald, Lears, and Cohen all understand is that Russiagate isn’t about Trump. He’s just a convenient proxy for the real target. Their understanding is shared by writers on the right, like Andrew McCarthy, a former lawyer at the Department of Justice, who has unfolded the Russiagate affair over the last year in the pages of National Review, where he has carefully explained how the DOJ and FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to spy on Carter Page and violate the privacy of an American citizen.
What unites Gessen, Greenwald, Lears, and McCarthy obviously isn’t politics—rather, it’s the recognition that the Russiagate campaign represents an attack on American political and social institutions, an attack on our liberties, an attack on us. Russiagate is a conspiracy theory, weaponized by political operatives, much of the press, as well as high-level intelligence and law enforcement bureaucrats to delegitimize an American election and protect their own interests, which coincide with those of the country’s larger professional and bureaucratic elite.
The story of how the Russiagate collusion myth was made and marketed is much easier to understand—it’s social. Imagine a map of professional, academic, and family networks that connect people across professions like law, journalism, public relations, and lobbying, which intersect with political institutions, like the permanent bureaucracies that staff places like the FBI, CIA, Congress, and the White House. That map is largely blue, but there’s lots of red there, too.
The story of how spies and journalists came to collaborate on a disinformation campaign is also, as the left may not be surprised to find, partly explained by economics. With the rise of the internet and social media, and the resulting collapse of print advertising, it was no longer necessary for the media to mass so close to New York City ad firms. Surviving old-media outlets and their new-media cousins moved much of their operations to Washington, which offered one-stop shopping for “national” stories. Having insulated itself from the 2008 economic collapse, the capital thrived. Ambitious and inexperienced young journalists flocked to where the jobs were, staffing startup news and social media operations—which were often simply partisan war rooms that produced and solicited opposition research—just in time to cover Obama’s historic presidency.
For those like Gessen, Cohen, Lears, and others on the left who don’t understand how and when American journalists got in bed with the country’s spies, it started several years before Trump or Russiagate. It was while reporting on the Obama administration that the press came to rely on the White House’s political operatives, including intelligence officials, for sources and stories about American foreign policy. It got worse when the Obama administration started spying on its domestic opponents during the Iran deal, when the Obama administration learned how far it could go in manipulating the foreign-intelligence surveillance apparatus for domestic political advantage. As Adam Entous, then of The Wall Street Journal, wrote in a December 2015 article, “the National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.”
Obama administration officials had leaked the story to Entous in order to shape its reception. After all, the real news was pretty bad—Obama had spied on Americans and the Americans he spied on, Congress and Jewish community leaders, knew it. But in Entous’ account, it was only by accident that the National Security Agency had listened in on Americans opposed to the Iran deal, opponents whose communications had simply been “swept up.” While Entous’ evident lack of skepticism about that account was hardly good reporting, it was perfectly in keeping with the maxim of not biting the hand that feeds you.
What the White House really wanted to know, on Entous’ telling, was what the Israeli prime minister and his ambassador to Washington were doing to contest the Iran deal. Except, neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer makes U.S. policy: Congress does. As I explained in an April Tablet article, the purpose of the spying campaign was to help the White House fight U.S. legislators and other Americans critical of the deal—i.e., to win a domestic political battle. A pro-Israel political operative who was deeply involved in the Iran deal fight told me last year, “The NSA’s collections of foreigners became a means of gathering real-time intelligence on Americans.” With the Iran deal, as would later happen with Russiagate, the ostensible targets of intelligence collection—Israel, then Russia—were simply instruments that the Obama administration used to go after the real bad guys, namely its enemies at home.
The same process of weaponizing foreign-intelligence collection for domestic political purposes that the Obama administration road-tested during the Iran-deal fight was used to manufacture Russiagate and get it to market. Except instead of keeping a close hold of the identities of those swept up during “incidental collection” of U.S. persons, departing Obama White House officials leaked the names to friendly reporters.
Leaking classified intelligence is a felony, which means that Obama officials, many in the intelligence community, who leaked the names of Americans whose communications were intercepted to the press, were breaking the law. A crucial concern, then, was the trustworthiness of the intermediaries chosen to publish classified intelligence. It is to those intermediaries that anyone seeking to understand how the press became an instrument of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy’s information war must now turn.
Entous, now The New Yorker’s man in Washington, had already proved his trustworthiness by shaping the story about Obama administration spying on congressional and American Jewish-community leaders in a way that was favorable to the administration, and disguised blatant abuses of power. More stories would now come his way, courtesy of the U.S. intelligence community.
One of Entous’ most famous Russia-related scoops was a Dec. 31, 2016, Washington Post article reporting that “according to US officials,” Russians hackers had penetrated the computer system of a Vermont dam. As it turns out, the story was entirely wrong.
A statement from Burlington Electric released shortly after the Post’s story explained that a laptop unconnected to the company’s grid was affected by malware. There was no threat to the dam, never mind “the nation’s electrical grid,” as the anonymous U.S. officials quoted in the Entous story had claimed.
In other words, there was no story—which Entous or his co-writer would have discovered had they contacted the electricity company. They didn’t, because the story was not sourced to original reporting—i.e. discovering from sources on location in Vermont that the state’s electrical grid had in fact been compromised. In support of reporting like that, the journalists might well have sought supporting information or quotes from government officials, named or even anonymous. Instead, their story started with anonymous U.S. officials, who leaked to Entous and his colleague for the evident purpose of advancing the Russiagate narrative. Russia was everywhere—from a dam in Vermont to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
If Entous’ story about the Obama administration’s spying on Congress and U.S. Jewish leaders showed that the reporter was trustworthy, the Vermont-dam article showed he wasn’t going to ask many questions of the officials who pointed him toward a nonexistent story, whose purpose appeared to have less to do with the health of the state of Vermont than with fear-mongering about Russia.
Clearly, someone noticed. In the March 1, 2017, Washington Post, Entous was lead byline on an article breaking the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. A July 21, 2017, Post story on which Entous had the lead byline alleged that Sessions had discussed campaign-related matters with Kislyak. The latter story provides evidence of how the March and July articles were produced—U.S. officials leaked classified intelligence regarding intercepts of Kislyak’s communications with Moscow, in which he discussed Sessions. Officials then unmasked the identity of the attorney general and leaked it to Entous and the other reporters on the story.
Following close on the heels of those two pass-through DC-based “scoops,” Entous was lead byline on an April 3, 2017, story reporting a meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian banker, reportedly to set up a back channel between Trump and Putin. After publication of the story, Prince said he was shown “specific evidence” by sources from the intelligence community that his name was unmasked and given to the paper. “Unless The Washington Post has somehow miraculously recruited the bartender of a hotel in the Seychelles,” Prince told the House Intelligence Committee in December, “the only way that’s happening is through SIGINT [signals intelligence].” Recent news reports suggest that Prince’s meeting has become a key focus of the Mueller investigation. If those reports are accurate, it seems even more likely that classified intelligence was purposefully being leaked to put pressure on Prince. A week later, on April 11, 2017, Entous is bylined on yet another story based on a leak of classified intelligence that once again violated the privacy rights of an American citizen when the Post broke the news that the FBI secured a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Carter Page.
If you think Russiagate is real, then you will probably conclude that Sessions, Prince, and Page are all part of a single, monstrous criminal conspiracy—and that Adam Entous is one of the most important journalists in American history, an indefatigable shoe-leather reporter who helped whistleblowers inside the federal government put the truth before the American public, like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Neil Sheehan combined. If you think the collusion story is nonsense, then Entous is just a political operative with a convenient byline. And if you think Russiagate is a campaign of political warfare waged in the shadows by bureaucrats who violated the privacy of American citizens in order to undo election results they disagreed with, then Entous is something worse—an asset whom sectors of the intelligence community have come to rely on in order to manipulate the public.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).