Yesterday I read the transcript of Glenn Simpson’s congressional testimony. Simpson is basically the bull goose of Fusion GPS, the strategic research firm that hired former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele to look into candidate Donald Trump’s dealings in Russia. The testimony is fascinating in several ways, and it’s difficult to determine which aspects of it are most important. So instead of trying to impose some sort of order of importance, I’m just going to talk about what I learned.
First, and most important, is this fact: the folks at Fusion GPS are professionals. I need to go off on a short tangent here. I spent seven years as private investigator specializing in criminal defense. From the title, people reasonably assume my job was to help accused criminals who are being prosecuted. In fact, my job was to gather facts and information and report my findings to the defense attorney. If that information supported the defendant, the attorney needed to know that; if it didn’t, the attorney needed to know that as well. I didn’t go out looking for information that would benefit the defendant or that would hurt the prosecution; I just looked for information that was accurate and credible. It didn’t matter to me if it helped or hurt the lawyer’s case.
That’s basically what Fusion GPS does on a global basis. They learn stuff for other people. Here’s how Simpson described their work:
“You tell us what your problem is and we customize a research solution. In general when people come to us and they tell us what their challenge is, we stipulate that they retain us for 30 days, they agree to pay our fee, they don’t tell us what to do, they don’t tell us, you know, what result to get.”
Fusion gets hired (and re-hired) because they provide accurate and reliably credible information, regardless of whether it’s the information that benefits their client. Their entire business model rests on their reputation. The thing about professional investigators (as opposed to politicians) is that they don’t mold their findings to fit the needs of the person signing the check. These guys are pros; they do NOT fuck around.
Second, the congressional aides for Sen. Charles Grassley DO fuck around. They spent a LOT of the nine-hour interview aggressively asking questions about Fusion’s investigation of the Prevezon case (a massive, complex, international tax fraud case involving Russia). It seemed obvious the purpose of those questions was to discredit Fusion by suggesting that in the Prevezon case they’d had been paid in some obscure way by Russians, and therefore…something. They weren’t trying to elicit information about the investigation of Russian interference, they were trying to disparage Fusion and Steele.
Third, what Fusion discovered was a nexus of interactions and dealings between Trump and people associated with Russian organized crime and Russian security services (which sometimes overlap). They found nothing overtly criminal — just a long history of business transactions that were suspicious, shady, and well-hidden.
Fourth, Fusion hired Steele to do the sort of work Fusion doesn’t do. Most of what Fusion does is document-based. Following paper trails. Discovering relationships by delving into deep, obscure bureaucratic files and public records. That gives them solid, objective, unbiased information — a document says what it says. But the public record only takes you so far. It was also necessary to actually talk to people who dealt with Trump’s business dealings in Russia.
This is an entirely different sort of investigation. It’s less about accuracy of information than it is about the credibility of the informant. A document says what it says; people say all sorts of ridiculous shit for all sorts of ridiculous reasons. Documents can give you accurate information; people are capable of giving you very accurate misinformation, maybe by accident, maybe on purpose. This gets even more complicated when dealing with Russia and Russian agents, who are trained in actively providing disinformation.
This was Christopher Steele’s area of expertise — human intelligence. Determining who is credible and who isn’t, the degree to which the information is reliable, how much it can be trusted, what motives do people have to provide misleading information. Steele began talking to people, and what he learned alarmed him. The fact that Steele was alarmed was, in itself, alarming to Simpson.
Fifth, this is what Christopher Steele discovered:
“[Steele’s] concern, which is something that counterintelligence people deal with a lot, is whether or not there was blackmail going on, whether a political candidate was being blackmailed or had been compromised.”
Sixth, contrary to what Republicans have been claiming, Simpson and Fusion weren’t sure what to do with that information. Republicans have been claiming the entire Fusion investigation was intended to harm Trump. In fact, the information uncovered by Steele left Simpson unsure how to respond. Steele wanted to report the information to the FBI; Simpson wasn’t sure if that was appropriate.
“[T]his was not considered by me to be part of the work that we were doing. This was — to me this was like, you know, you’re driving to work and you see something happen and you call 911, right. It wasn’t part of the — it wasn’t like we were trying to figure out who should [contact the FBI]. He said he was professionally obligated to do it.”
Seventh, although Steele did report his findings to the FBI, he discovered that the FBI was already aware of some of the problem. It had been reported by somebody in either the Trump business world or the Trump campaign.
“Essentially what [Steele] told me was they had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source and that — that they — my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human 10 source from inside the Trump organization.”
Eighth – and this is a big deal which seems to be getting overlooked – Simpson was reluctant to provide too much information to the congressional aides for fear the information could get somebody hurt.
“There are some things I know that I just don’t feel comfortable sharing because obviously it’s been in the news a lot lately that people who get in the way of the Russians tend to get hurt.”
Later in the interview, the extent of this becomes more clear during this testy exchange between Simpson, Simpson’s lawyer (Mr. Levey) and Jason Foster, Senator Grassley’s Chief Investigative Counsel:
FOSTER: So without getting into naming the sources or anything like that, what steps did you take to try to verify their credibility?
MR. SIMPSON: I’m going to decline to answer that.
MR. FOSTER: Why?
MR. LEVY: It’s a voluntary interview, and in addition to that he wants to be very careful to protect his sources. Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work.
MR. FOSTER: I’m not asking him to identify the sources. I’m just asking what steps he took to try to verify or validate the information.
MR. LEVY: He’s given you —
MR. FOSTER: If he can answer generally without identifying the sources, I’d ask him to answer.
MR. LEVY: He’s given you over nine hours of information and he’s going to decline to answer this one question.
So here’s what I know as a result of the release of this transcript. Fusion GPS was NOT hired to find dirt on Trump. Trump is/was at least vulnerable to blackmail by Russian security services. The FBI was already aware of that before Fusion and Steele provided them with the Steele dossier. The FBI has/had a source either in the Trump business world or in the Trump campaign. Somebody has been killed as a result of leaks involving the dossier.
I also know that Republicans – and specifically Sen. Grassley – opposed the release of this transcript. I suspect his opposition was grounded in partisanship. I know Grassley’s aides were more concerned with discrediting Fusion than with learning about possible interference with the election process and collusion within the Trump campaign. I know Grassley submitted a ‘referral’ to the FBI to have Christopher Steele investigated for possibly lying to the FBI (despite the fact that FBI had already met with Steele and had decided his information was credible) in what was obviously another attempt to discredit the dossier.
And I know this: Republican members of Congress are more concerned with protecting President Trump than with the integrity of the US election system, the rule of law, and democracy in general. I know the entire Republican Congress is essentially complicit in what is perhaps the biggest crime ever perpetrated against the United States.
That’s what I know. And it makes me sick to my stomach.