An interesting thing happened last Friday: a bizarre confluence of events that left many of us wondering if we’d stepped into the Twilight Zone.
It began without much acclaim. Reps. Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy had been scheduled to meet with Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials to finally review the classified information to which they’d been denied access until Nunes threatened to subpoena the information and hold the officials in contempt.
But they decided not to attend the meeting. According to Nunes, after getting word that they wouldn’t be provided the unredacted information they sought, they declined the invitation.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Shortly after the meeting would have ended, The New York Times and Washington Post published articles describing the dispute between Nunes and the DOJ, in which the authors referenced the FBI informant whose actions before the initiation of a formal FBI investigation into the Trump campaign apparently provoked Nunes’ interest in having the information unredacted.
The Post and Times’ Reporting on Stefan Halper
The Post and Times had been writing about the suspected source, Stefan Halper, all week, but generally refrained from including information that could reveal his identity. That all changed Friday evening. Both papers did everything but provide his Social Security number and home address.
Their descriptions of his prior association with the FBI and CIA, his meetings with at least two of the Trump campaign members, and the timing of these meetings closely tracked Chuck Ross’s reporting in The Daily Caller two months ago, in which Ross named the informant as Stefan Halper.
The Times and Post declined to include Harper’s name in their otherwise-illuminating biographical profiles of him. They wrote that they withheld the name to protect him and others who may be placed in danger if his identity became public, while knowingly and effectively making his identity public.
As if that bizarre departure from reality wasn’t enough, they then blamed it all on Nunes, Gowdy, and President Trump. They said their own role in identifying the informant was a direct result of Republicans’ interest in viewing the unredacted FBI records initiating the investigation. They made us do it. We had no choice.
Nunes appeared on Fox News the next day and pointed out the curious timing of the revelatory reports. He wondered if the decision to reveal Halper’s identity (in all but name) was timed to follow his scheduled meeting, inviting speculation that Nunes, his colleagues, or someone in the Trump administration had leaked all that information on Halper to the press. Under the circumstances, he was right to wonder.
If The FBI Really Were Trying to Protect Team Trump
All of this, though, was incidental to the core issue of the raging debate following the revelation the FBI had employed Halper: Did the FBI spy on the Trump campaign, and if so, what was the goal of their operation?
The answer, according to a parade of pundits, politicians, and former officials, was no, the FBI didn’t “spy” on the Trump campaign. They were simply employing standard tradecraft associated with any counterintelligence operation. They were using the “least intrusive method” to try to protect the Trump team from Russian spies attempting to gain access and leverage influence over the campaign officials. To suggest that they may have had other options to accomplish that mission was to betray ignorance.
But there are legitimate questions here. If the FBI was trying to use the least intrusive method to conduct their counterintelligence duty to protect the Trump campaign from Russian intelligence attempts to infiltrate, influence, entrap, compromise, or recruit Trump campaign officials, why didn’t they have the wily Halper deliver the appropriate warnings to Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Sam Clovis during his private meetings with them?
Halper had already gone through the trouble of setting up the meetings using his cover as an American professor with similar interests and affiliations as his targets, and he presumably employed all of the appropriate tradecraft he’d practiced over the years as a source for CIA and FBI in ensuring the meetings were adequately secure, private, and cover-consistent.
So why not take advantage of all of that tradecraft and deliver the message directly to them, instead of running a glorified, drawn out, hit-and-miss elicitation exercise on them? The people who are defending these engagements as completely appropriate are also telling us that the FBI did it this way to help defend these men from the Russian agents circling the block:
“The FBI couldn’t have called these guys in during an election! It would have actually hurt the Trump campaign if they did that. Imagine the uproar when it got out in the media that the FBI was talking to Trump campaign officials about Russian spies attempting to compromise them! They had no choice but to use the confidential informant. It was the least intrusive way of doing it.”
What Would Have Been Likely If That Narrative Is True
You had a guy sitting across the table from all three of them in private settings, exchanging collegial chatter over tea. What if Halper simply leaned across the table and said:
“Hey, George, listen, I’ve got to be honest about why I wanted to talk to you. Don’t be alarmed—it’s actually a very good reason. See, I’ve been asked by the FBI to meet with you to warn that they’ve got very valid reason to believe the Russians are sniffing around you with an eye towards finding a way to either trip you up or recruit you.
“I know, sounds wild, but you need to know that it’s happening, and that these people are very sophisticated in this kind of work. They’ll set you up in some way—maybe a girl, maybe someone offering you information, or maybe someone just trying to be your new best friend. If any of that rings a bell right now, then whatever you’re thinking was probably an attempt to compromise you in some way.
“The reason I’m talking to you about it now is simply to warn you that it’s either happening or will almost certainly happen before the election, and the FBI wants you to be prepared if and when it does. You’re not in any trouble. This isn’t a warning TO you, this is a warning FOR you.
“My only caution to you is that you can’t, under any circumstances, tell anyone else on earth that we had this conversation. That will get you in trouble. The very reason I went through all of this trouble to get you here and meet with you is so that nobody else would know the FBI has eyes on what the Russians are doing. You revealing any part of this conversation with anyone else—I don’t care if it’s your wife, sister, mother, anyone—could blow back on the FBI in a negative way, particularly in their ability to monitor what the Russians are up to.
“You’re not under any type of surveillance, but I guarantee if the FBI finds out you told anyone else about this conversation, the next guy who talks to you about Russian attempts to compromise people will be doing it in a small room in DC, and he won’t be buying you dinner.
“Now, I’m happy to answer any questions you have that I can, but you should know up-front that all I know about this is what I just told you. I’m just a friend of the FBI they asked to deliver the message. You can also tell me if you can think of anyone who you think may have been doing what I talked about—sniffing around for information or throwing women at you or suddenly showing interest—anything that made you suspicious. If you can think of anything like that, I’ll pass it on.”
What could possibly be less intrusive than that? A quiet conversation in a private setting with a friendly warning that people with bad intentions are probably weaseling their way into his orbit? That would truly be to his benefit, as opposed to trying to craftily pull information out of him, then leaving him no less vulnerable to Russian overtures than when he sat down at the table.
What Would Be More Effective If That Were the Goal?
The FBI and intelligence experts on cable news shows are telling us that a conversation such as what I’ve posited above would find its way onto the front page of The New York Times within hours: “The FBI is interviewing Trump campaign officials and warning them of attempts by Russian spies to infiltrate the campaign.” That’s the prevailing defense—that everyone would find out about it and the FBI was simply trying to avoid any possibility of their interest in Russian influence operations on Trump campaign members becoming a news story.
But it wouldn’t get out—not unless someone in the FBI or the campaign official revealed the details of the meeting to a third party. If the warning made its way into Russian communications and was picked up by our intelligence, there would then be valid reason to throw whatever surveillance resources we have at that campaign official, to include secret warrants and all that comes with it.
But it didn’t happen that way. If you set aside your political or ideological biases and rely purely on reason and sensibility to assess the issue, you can honestly ask yourself (and answer) this question: “Under the circumstances known to us regarding Halper’s mission, would the Russian threat be more effectively interdicted through direct and discrete warnings to the targeted individuals, or by relying on Halper’s elicitation skills and hoping he could surreptitiously gather the information necessary to identify and shut down the threat?”
It is currently unknown whether Halper’s conversations with the three Trump campaign officials provided any substantive input into the FBI’s understanding of the identities, tactics, intentions, or effectiveness of the Russian attempt to infiltrate the Trump campaign with spies, or to compromise campaign officials in an attempt to set them up for blackmail. It’s fair to say, though, that it’s unlikely.
It’s also fair to say that the FBI didn’t expect to learn anything of the sort from Halper, and the reason it’s fair to say that is because the answer to the question I posed above is patently obvious. If the FBI wasn’t more interested in investigating the targets than they were in interdicting the threat, they’d have just warned the targets.
What is known is that the FBI’s focus wasn’t on protecting the Trump campaign from the Russians. The FBI’s focus was to use any available resources to prove that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia to illegally influence the election, as clearly laid out for them in a dossier provided by a man FBI director James Comey assured the Senate Intelligence Committee was a “reliable source.”
Pointing This Out Is Not Attacking the FBI
It’s not easy to write disparaging articles about the FBI. I’ve had the good fortune of working with them on occasion, and I’ve got nothing but respect and admiration for the agents I’ve worked with over the years. We often hear from Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Rep. Ted Lieu, et al., that sentiments such as those I’ve expressed here are attacks on the institution of the FBI, designed to undermine the legitimacy and demean the good work of FBI agents who are simply doing their best to protect our country from a wide array of threats.
But they know as well as I do that none of this has anything to do with rank and file FBI agents, any more than a critique of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq is a condemnation of the soldiers in the Third Mechanized Infantry Division. Imagine if every comment or criticism of the Iraq war met an immediate allegation that the critic was really attempting to demean and diminish of our armed forces. It’s a ridiculous argument, and anyone making it would be laughed out of the room.
Yet we allow Democratic politicians, pundits, and former intelligence officials to assign ulterior motive to valid criticism of the leadership of the FBI and the rest of U.S. intelligence, who’ve left us with more questions than answers regarding their actions during and immediately after the 2016 presidential campaign.
There are legitimate questions and concerns about the decisions they made, and the motivations that informed those decisions. The decision to use Halper as an informant instead of a messenger cannot possibly be considered a favor to the Trump campaign. It’s as insulting as it is ridiculous to assert as much.
This Only Makes Sense If the Target Was Trump
The only people who would have known that Halper delivered warnings to those campaign officials would be the FBI leadership, Halper, and the three who were warned. If those private conversations made their way into the press, it wouldn’t be difficult to determine where that information came from, and to take action against the leaker(s). If the actual goal was to identify and interdict Russian attempts to coopt members of the Trump campaign staff, there was no good reason, operationally, to do it the way they did.
If the goal, however, was to elicit and assess information from an unwitting subject to determine that subject’s level of complicity in questionable, ongoing engagement with foreign agents, then using Halper as an informant was exactly what they should have done.
It’s simple: if the Russians were the target, inform and inoculate the campaign member. If a campaign member was the target, keep him in the dark and try to get him to unwittingly implicate himself. The fact that intelligence professionals with either a personal or ideological stake in this refuse to acknowledge the distinction between the two options is disturbing, and instructive. Playing dumb is generally not an indicator of confidence in one’s assertion.
Had the former intelligence leadership and FBI experts currently populating the cable news panels simply acknowledged that the campaign officials were under suspicion and considered targets at the time the decision was made to deploy Halper, we’d all be spared this foolish parsing and embarrassing displays of feigned ignorance. We wouldn’t have had to watch James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, tell the women of “The View” how uncomfortable he is with the word “spy.”
The ‘Spy’ Versus ‘Not Spy’ Debate Is a Sideshow
While we’re only at the initial stages of the information cycle on the Halper imbroglio, it’s already clear that both sides are digging in and preparing for battle. “He wasn’t spying on the Trump campaign, he was saving them from themselves” will become the default talking point across the media and left-wing political spectrum, and the Right will respond by quoting the definition of “spy.” None of it will be helpful.
Arguing the semantics of “spy” versus “Confidential Human Source” is a colossal waste of time and energy, and misses the point entirely, designedly so. At this point, as with much else in this year-long exposition of ideological combat disguised as “news,” the appropriate response to the “not a spy” talking point is also the only way any of these issues will ever be resolved: “Prove it.”