Congressional investigators are looking into the role that foreign allies might have played early on in the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign, amid irregularities on normal information sharing practices.
The FBI has maintained that it started its investigation on July 31, 2016, only after the Australian government tipped them off about a conversation one of its diplomats had with former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in London, who allegedly told him that Russia had material that would be damaging to Clinton.
According to an interview given by the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer in April, after he spoke with Papadopoulos in May 2016, he officially reported it to Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., Joe Hockey, just a day or two later. He said Hockey passed the information to Washington “after a period of time.”
But one mystery is how that information actually got to Washington, and to whom it went. As a member of the “Five Eyes,” an intelligence-sharing alliance between the U.S., Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, the information should have been sent from Australia to D.C. though an official channel.
However, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) viewed the electronic communication (EC) that launched the FBI’s investigation in April, and found no foreign intelligence in it.
“We now know that there was no official intelligence that was used to start this investigation,” Nunes told Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo in a recent interview. “We are not supposed to spy on each other’s citizens, and it’s worked well.”
A recent report by Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, citing a diplomatic source, said Hockey never transmitted information to the U.S., and that it was Downer who took it to the U.S. embassy in London himself.
According to Strassel, that is “not how things are normally done.”
Rather, she said, the Five Eyes agreement, of which Australia is a member, requires any intelligence gathered to go through the intelligence system of the country that gathered it, to guarantee information is securely handled.
Strassel said Downer was supposed to report back to his capital, which would have vetted the information through Australian intelligence before sending it to the Americans. But as Nunes noted, there was no Five Eyes intelligence in the document that launched the FBI probe.
Therefore, Strassel said, Australian intelligence either did not know or feel compelled to act on it, and send it to the U.S.
Instead, Downer’s tip went to the U.S. Embassy in London’s then-charge d’affaires, Elizabeth Dibble, who had been a principal deputy assistant secretary in the Clinton State Department.
Her superior was Victoria Nuland, who was at the time Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.
Nuland, who was in charge of overseeing U.S. policy toward Russia, told the Global Politico podcast in February that in spring of 2016, she was one of those who had “first rung the alarm bell” inside the Obama administration that Russia was trying to discredit the 2016 electoral process.
Strassel’s report raises the question of when and how that information made it to the FBI, who claimed they only received the information after July 22, 2016, when hacked Democratic National Committee emails were released by Wikileaks, prompting the Australians to come forward.
Downer, when he was serving as Australian foreign minister in February 2006, arranged for one of the largest foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, of $25 million, according to The Hill.
Another member of the Five Eyes alliance — the United Kingdom — might have also passed intelligence outside normal channels.
A Guardian report from April 17, 2017, said, citing a “source close to UK intelligence,” that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency — “first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious ‘interactions’ between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents” and passed on that intelligence to the U.S. “as part of a routine exchange of information.”
The report does not say what the suspicious “interactions” were, but it is public knowledge that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn took a paid speaking engagement in Moscow hosted by RT on December 10, 2015, where he was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Flynn began informally advising the campaign in February 2016).
The Guardian article also said foreign intelligence agencies shared “further information” between late 2015 “until summer 2016” — or when the FBI formally launched its investigation on July 31, 2017: “Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians.”
Those countries reportedly included Germany, Estonia, Poland, and Australia. The Guardian report also suggested the Dutch and the French spy agency, the General Directorate for External Security, also contributed.
The Guardian article stated: “Both U.S. and U.K. intelligence sources acknowledge that GCHQ played an early, prominent role in kickstarting the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation.”
It is not yet clear how U.K. intelligence was shared with the U.S., if not through the Five Eyes channel.
Nunes has speculated the intelligence from Western intelligence agencies might have flowed through the State Department, but did not explain how.
However, there are signs that Nuland was involved, as well as a former State Department official named Jonathan Winer, and ex-British spy and “pee dossier” author Christopher Steele.
According to Winer, Steele allowed him to view a two-page summary of the “pee dossier” and take notes, which he said he passed on to Nuland in “summer 2016,” who told him to share them with then-Secretary of State John Kerry.
Winer also admitted he was given a second document from Blumenthal, passed on from Clinton operative Cody Shearer, that he gave to Steele to share with the FBI.
It is possible that Nuland received information from both Australia and the U.K., which she then passed to Winer, who passed it on to Steele, who passed it on to the FBI.
Nuland, who was at the time in charge of overseeing U.S. policy toward Russia, said she and others learned of the dossier in late July or “something like that” though an intermediary — likely Winer — and claimed she told him to tell those he was interfacing with to go to the FBI.
Nuland said she had told the intermediary, “This is about U.S. politics … and not the business of the State Department,” and claimed she did not know that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee had funded the dossier.
Nunes is also looking into the State Department’s role in the FBI investigation.
“We know that Sidney Blumenthal and others were pushing information into the State Department. So we’re trying to piece all that together and that’s why we continue to look at the State Department,” he told Bartiromo.
Still a mystery is the role that FBI informant Stefan Halper — who has links to the CIA and British intelligence — played early on in the investigation. Halper, who works in London at Cambridge University, had begun reaching out to members of the Trump campaign weeks before the FBI said it began its investigation.
He had invited former campaign adviser Carter Page to London in June 2016 via a Ph.D. student for a symposium taking place July 11-12, 2016 — before the FBI said it received the Papadopoulos tip that sparked their investigation. Halper later reached out to Papadopoulos with an offer to pay for a trip to London and $3,000 for a paper on Cypriot energy.
It is still not clear whom he worked for — the FBI or the CIA — when he reached out to them, why he reached out to them, or who provided him with funds to pay Papadopoulos. He is also reportedly the source behind the allegation that Flynn had been too friendly with a female Russian scholar at a seminar in 2014.
Around the time Halper met up with Papadopoulos in September 2016, he was paid $282,295 by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment.
Also still a mystery is the Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, who first told Papadopoulos that the Russians had material that would be damaging to Clinton. He has reportedly disappeared, leaving a pregnant fiancée without any idea where he is.
Mifsud, on April 26, 2016, told Papadopoulos he had been in contact with Russian government officials who said they had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands” of emails. According to the Daily Caller, Papadopoulos believed he was referring to the 30,000 emails that Clinton had deleted from her private server, not the hacked DNC emails.
According to the Federalist, Papadopoulos was working at the London Center of International Law, one of Mifsud’s enterprises. Mifsud also ran the “London Academy of Diplomacy.”
Mifsud was close to a well-known Italian MEP named Gianni Pittella, who worked as a visiting professor at the academy. Pitella in July 2016 traveled to the U.S. to endorse and campaign for Clinton “because the risk of Donald Trump is too high.”
Mifsud and Papadopoulos met one week after Papadopoulos joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. After that meeting, Mifsud introduced him to a woman posing as Putin’s niece, and later introduced him to an individual in Moscow with purported connections to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Papadopoulos worked to arrange a meeting with Trump campaign and Russian government officials from March through August 2016. He met with Mifsud at a London hotel on April 26, 2016, where Mifsud told him “he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian governmental officials,” and “that on that trip he learned that the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton.”
In February 2017, Mifsud visited the U.S. and spoke to the FBI. He also spoke at a national meeting at the Global Ties event, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
The Federalist’s Margot Cleveland questioned in her piece who Mifsud really was, and whether he had set up Papadopoulos:
What did Mifsud tell the FBI? He clearly isn’t the “source” referenced in the Washington Post article because he is not a U.S. citizen. But is he a source? Did he use Papadopoulos as a pawn to set up Trump? Did he feed Papadopoulos information about Russia to see how the Trump campaign responded?
If so, those efforts began in March of 2016—but on whose behalf? And for what purpose? Simpson testified before the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that he didn’t know much about Mifsud. This statement seems to separate Mifsud from the Steele and Fusion GPS inquiry. But it leaves Mifsud solidly entangled in the earliest stages of the Russian investigation.”
Other legal experts and investigative journalists are also questioning who Mifsud is.
Andrew McCarthy, former federal prosecutor and contributing editor at the National Review, said Monday on Fox and Friends, “The most fishy parts of the story are: Is Mifsud really a Russian agent?”
Lee Smith, an investigative journalist, reported that there is “no evidence” to support the claim that Mifsud is a Russian operative.
“While most media accounts have simply repeated official claims that Mifsud is a sketchy character whose visits to Russia and academic contacts suggest he is working for Russian intelligence, a look at the available evidence challenges that narrative,” Smith wrote in RealClearInvestigations.
“It also raises the possibility that Mifsud [may]…have actually been working for Western intelligence agencies,” he wrote.