Apophenia 6 October 2019.

The German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961) studied the development of schizophrenia.  In a 1958 book he defined an early stage of schizophrenia as “apophenia.”  Conrad explained that apophenia consisted of the “unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness.”[1]  What follows is an attempt to illustrate this idea by reference to a contemporary political controversy.

 

The “Steele Dossier” was inserted into public consciousness between July and September 2016.   The “Whistleblower Complaint” was inserted into public consciousness between July and September 2019.

The author of the “Steele Dossier” reportedly was Christopher Steele, a highly-regarded former British intelligence officer.  The author of the “Whistleblower Complaint is believed to be a highly-regarded Central Intelligence Agency officer.

The basis of the “Steele Dossier” was unverified hear-say.  The basis of the “Whistleblower Complaint” was largely then-unverified hearsay.

The “Steele Dossier” was first communicated to a consulting firm in the employ of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and to an FBI agent stationed in Rome.  Then, when the information did not reach the public or result in an official investigation, it was shared with journalists.  The “Whistleblower Complaint” was first communicated to a government “tip-line” and resulted in a formal complaint.  Then, when the information did not result in an official investigation, it was shared with Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

The “Steele Dossier” alleged—among other things–that: 1) that Trump presidential campaign officials conspired with the Russians; 2) that Carter Page played a key role in this conspiracy; 3) that Paul Manafort directed the conspiracy; 4) that Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had met secretly with Russian representatives in Prague.

“The Whistleblower Complaint” alleged—among other things–that: 1) Trump tried to extort the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden; 2) Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, played a key role in this conspiracy; 4) US Attorney John Durham may be investigating Ukrainian leads as part of his probe of the origins of the Russia-Trump investigation.

It is useful to recall the context for both cases.  In the case of the “Steele Dossier,” Russians had intervened in the 2016 US presidential election, not least by releasing secret information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton.  The Australian government informed American officials that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had told one of their diplomats that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.  President Trump has doubted/denied the reports of American intelligence agencies about Russian interference and took umbrage at the investigation of alleged conspiracy between his campaign and the Russians.

In the case of the “Whistleblower Complaint,” 1) Ukraine suffers from endemic corruption.  During the Obama Administration, Vice President Joe Biden led an effort to pressure the government of Ukraine to shape up.  2) Information on the dealings in Ukraine of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, provided some of the basis for Manafort’s indictment.  3) In 2014 Hunter Biden joined the board of a Ukrainian energy company run by oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky.  Once Vice President Joe Biden took charge of trying to damp-down Ukrainian corruption, Hunter Biden’s position created an apparent conflict-of-interest that was acknowledged by the New York Times.  4) In Spring 2019, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko began alleging “interference” in the 2016 US presidential election by Ukrainians working against Trump.  Other officials have denied these allegations.

 

It is impossible at this point to predict the final outcomes of the two cases.  The case of the “Steele Dossier” is not yet concluded.

1) In March 2019: Special Counsel Robert Mueller “did not establish” that a Trump-Russia conspiracy had existed.  2) The Special Counsel did not charge former Trump campaign official Carter Page with any crime.  The Special Counsel stated that Michael Cohen never visited Prague.  Paul Manafort was convicted of financial crimes committed before 2016 and for obstruction of justice committed during the investigation of those crimes.  He was not charged with conspiring with the Russians.  3) The Department of Justice Inspector General has been investigating allegations of Federal Bureau of Investigation misconduct in FISA warrant applications to surveil former Trump campaign official Page.  This investigation included a July 2019 extended interview with Steele.  By mid-September 2019, a draft report on the FISA warrants was circulating inside the Department of Justice and the FBI.   4) In late April 2019, Attorney General William Barr appointed US Attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation.

The case of the “Whistleblower Complaint” is just beginning.

1) After the Mueller Report, Democratic efforts to impeach Trump had languished, with House majority leader Nancy Pelosi paying more attention to public opinion polls and the situation of the moderate new members of the House than to the left wing of the party.  2) The “Whistleblower Complaint” shifted the balance of forces.  House of Representatives Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry.  3) Attorney General Barr has denied being asked to contact Ukrainian officials, having any contact with Ukrainian officials, having any contact with Giuliani with regard to Ukraine, and knowing about the Trump phone call until several weeks later, possibly as a result of the whistleblower’s complaint.  4) In late September 2019, John Durham was reported to be investigating how the incriminating information on Manafort reached the FBI from Ukraine.

There is a lot of scope for apophenia in these events.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia.  I first encountered the term in William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003), a sort-of science fiction novel set in what John LeCarre called “the recent future.”

Summer 2016 2 10 July 2019.

In the many days ago, some people suspected that FIFA (International Federation of Football Associations—i.e. the organization that ran the “beautiful game”) was as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.  When the British Football Association contemplated trying to get the World Cup venue in 2018 or 2012, it hired Christopher Steele’s firm to investigate FIFA.  He learned a lot.  In 2011, when the FBI opened its own investigation into corruption in soccer, agents talked to Steele.  The FBI group conducting the soccer investigation, was the “Eurasian Organized Crime” group.  It was based in the New York field office, rather than in Washington.  The FBI group’s leader at that time may have been Michael Gaeta.  Gaeta later moved to the American embassy in Rome.[1]

In the first week of July 2016, Steele asked Gaeta to come to London.  Gaeta got the meeting approved by Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, then met Steele in London on 5 July 2016.  Steele gave the agent 2-4 pages highlighting his information gathered so far.  It has been reported that Gaeta said “I have to show this to headquarters.”[2]  Was that the answer Christopher Steele hoped to hear?

To whom did Michael Gaeta report?

On the one hand, Gaeta reported back to Assistant Secretary Nuland, sending the papers he had been given by Steele.  Nuland later stated that “our immediate reaction to that was, ‘This is not in our purview.  This needs to go to the FBI, if there is any concern here that one candidate or the election as a whole might be influenced by the Russian federation. That’s something for the FBI to investigate.”[3]  Unless Nuland was using the “royal we,” who were the people with whom Nuland discussed the information sent by Gaeta?  Did it go as far up as Secretary of State John Kerry?  Then what did Nuland do?  Did she forward the report to FBI headquarters or did she tell Gaeta to tell Steele to tell the FBI himself?

On the other hand, another account says that Gaeta also sent the reports to the Eurasian Organized Crime team in the FBI’s New York field office.  There it sat until mid-September 2016.[4]  Gaeta had been, or still was, the boss of the Eurasian Organized Crime team.  So, he sends this stuff to the outfit and they go “meh, fan-mail from some flounder”?  Or do they cable/email him back, going “WTF Mike?”  IDK, maybe the FBI does run like the Post Office.

In September 2016, a frustrated Steele shared some of his materials with Jonathan Winer, previously the deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, and before that an aid to Senator John Kerry, now the Secretary of State.  Winer took the stuff to Nuland, “who indicated that, like me, she felt that the secretary of state needed to be made aware of this material.”[5]

[1] Mark Hosenball, “Former MI-6 spy known to U.S. agencies is author of reports on Trump in Russia,” Reuters, 12 January 2017.

[2] Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (2018).

[3] Emily Tillett, “Victoria Nuland Says Obama State Dept. Informed FBI of Reporting from Steele dossier,” CBS News, 4 February 2018.

[4] Mike Levine, “Trump ‘dossier’ stuck in New York, didn’t trigger Russian investigation, sources say,” ABC News, 18 September 2018.  https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-dossier-stuck-york-trigger-russia-investigation-sources/story?id=57919471

[5] Jonathan Winer, “Devin Nunes is investigating me. Here’s the truth,” Washington Post, 9 February 2018.

Mueller Report.

OK, this is a first-twitch response.  Probably have to eat it–and my hat–soon.

So far, and we’ll have to wait a while to b sure, Robert Mueller has not objected to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his findings. The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher opines that the one sentence quote from the Mueller report on “conspiracy” is as close as lawyer-speak allows to a complete exoneration. Without an underlying crime, it is difficult to distinguish between simply defending oneself against a loose-cannon investigator and obstruction of justice.

Mueller reports that the Russians tried to “collude,” but the Trump campaign wouldn’t cooperate. This was clear a year ago in the testimony of Papodopoulos.  Also, there’s plenty of evidence that the Russkies tried to help Trump. Just no evidence that a) the Trump campaign cooperated or–so far as I know–b) it made any difference. Jane Mayer will disagree with that latter remark.

I think that we’re still waiting on a Department of Justice Inspector-General’s report on how the Trump investigation began. The same IG evaluated the work of James Comey on the HRC investigation, and then evaluated the behavior of Peter Strozk. So, we’ll know more then.

Bear in mind that the Russians could have identified Christopher Steele as an American government agent during 2015-2016.  At the behest of the Department of Justice, Steele took a pass at Oleg Deripaska.  Deripaska probably grassed to Putin.  I don’t recall seeing Steele’s expenses for things like massive payments to Russians in exchange for state secrets.  (I’m assuming that revealing state secrets when Vladimir Putin tends to kill–in gruesome fashion–anyone who  leaks information required monetary compensation.  But what do I know?  Perhaps there are many Russian government officials so deeply concerned that Donald Trump might become president that they were willing to get Putinium added to their tea.  Or perhaps Steele got his “dossier” under the Old Pals Act.)  Failing those alternative possibilities, anything Steele got from the Russians after that may have been a Russkie plant intended to mess with the 2016 election. Mueller did not investigate that possibility. I wish he had.