( Dossiers and Disinformation…)
Holman W Jenkins, Jr. 1/12/2018 WSJ
Glenn Simpson, in the now-released transcript of last summer’s interview with congressional investigators on the Trump dossier, mentions his former employment with The Wall Street Journal and Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.
He doesn’t mention the Unification Church-owned (i.e., Moonies) Insight magazine in the mid-1980s. I know because I worked there too. As did others: Malcolm Gladwell was one—I got his desk when he left for the Washington Post. John Podhoretz, a columnist for the New York Post and editor of Commentary magazine, was one of my editors. David Brooks, of the New York Times, worked downstairs at our sister publication, the Washington Times. David Brock, who gained fame for his Bill Clinton Troopergate reporting and then for becoming a powerful pro-Clinton activist in Washington, was yet another colleague.
I could go on, though I imagine some would prefer I didn’t. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
Which brings me to today’s subject. The essence of journalism is assessing the validity of statements.
Democrats hired Mr. Simpson to look into Donald Trump’s background. He hired Christopher Steele, the former British agent, to look into Trump-Russia connections. Mr. Steele, from his base in London, reached out to contacts in Russia. A few new things, though, become apparent through Mr. Simpson’s testimony.
He has no real idea whether the info was trustworthy.
He won’t say whether he knows who Mr. Steele’s sources were.
He’s completely at sea on the question of whether he and his firm, Fusion GPS, were victims of Russian disinformation.
“What he [Steele] said was, ‘Disinformation is an issue in my profession, that is a central concern, and that we are trained to spot disinformation, and if I believed this was disinformation or I had concerns about that I would tell you that and I’m not telling you that.’”
It ain’t that easy—ask James Angleton. Ask the FBI and CIA, with all their resources, trying to sort out whether the dossier or the Loretta Lynch-related email are deliberate Russian plants. Read Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin on the Soviet leader’s inability to discern a pending Nazi invasion: “When Stalin damned his intelligence as contaminated by disinformation, therefore, he was right. But the despot had no idea which parts were disinformation.”
If you’re a history buff, 10 other examples have occurred to you.
Mr. Simpson’s blithe assertion that Mr. Steele was on the lookout for disinformation is a joke, worthless. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote several weeks ago that Democrats who tried to inject this material into the 2016 race would be in a better position ethically if they found the Trump dossier on the sidewalk—i.e., had no knowledge of its untrustworthy antecedents. In this light, it’s odd that Mr. Simpson would, as he testified, let a foreign national (Mr. Steele), whose information Mr. Simpson could not vouch for, evaluate or defend, talk him into trying to introduce it into the presidential race via the FBI.
There is a time-honored method by which reporters make fools of themselves. They have a narrative that says (for instance), look for Russian connections. Any they find, however desultory and unrelated to the central premise, become proof of the premise, in this case the premise of a conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Russian government.
Felix Sater, an ex-Russian criminal, was long known to be a business associate of Mr. Trump (Mr. Trump walked out of a BBC interview in 2013 when his name came up). A seller of luxury properties, Mr. Trump sold some to Russian émigrés.
See, these involve Russia, and the document is all about Russia.
Mr. Trump has claimed for years that Vladimir Putin walks all over the U.S. because we have weak leaders. We’d have better relations under a strong leader. Lacking connections to the GOP policy establishment, he attracts helpers and hangers-on who are keen to promote better ties with Russia. Of course, opportunists come out of the woodwork, like a Maltese professor claiming to have Kremlin contacts.
You can almost read the New York Times editorial now. Every specific claim in the dossier may be false, but it points to a “larger truth.” Read further, and the larger truth is that Mr. Trump is sleazy, so it doesn’t matter if particular allegations against him are real or made-up.
Here’s another truth: Our industry has its share of Dan Rathers, capable in some respects but deficient in judgment. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, is their favorite metaphor. The world is smoke, they forget. The challenge is interpreting it accurately, rigorously.
One final point: If the Trump dossier is Russian disinformation, it’s only the second way Russian disinformation roiled U.S. politics. The first would be the fake Russian “intelligence” referring to a nonexistent email between liberal operatives concerning Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch that was reportedly a key factor in James Comey’s decision to intervene in the Hillary Clinton email matter in the run-up to Election Day.
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.