Russiagate’s Dangers to Democracy
Russiagate is a purported attempt to uncover the alleged subversion of U.S. democracy, but it’s creating dangers of its own, says former FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. It’s one day after the first indictments in the special counsel’s Russiagate probe. President Trump is now distancing himself from foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, calling him a “low-level volunteer who has already proven to be a liar.”
Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his meetings with foreign nationals who claimed Russian government ties. Meanwhile executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter are testifying on Capitol Hill today as they face pressure over alleged Russian-linked content on their platforms.
I’m joined now by Coleen Rowley, a retired FBI special agent and former legal counsel for the FBI. Also a former whistleblower. Coleen welcome. You’re familiar with the type of case that has indicted these three individuals, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates and now this George Papadopoulos, this foreign policy advisor that Trump is now calling a liar and distancing himself from. Your thoughts on how the process has been unfolding over the past few days.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, there’s a lot of thing to cover here because it’s such a mess. I defy anyone who really knows the facts. You can read a lot of different articles but actually no one knows the facts. I really doubt even Robert Mueller knows the facts.
He has made a starting place, which is a very normal typical way of trying to unravel if there is a conspiracy, starting at the bottom, getting someone charged with something serious like this Papagawols?
AARON MATÉ: Papadopoulos, but you can call him George P.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Dopolous, yeah. Papadopoulos.
AARON MATÉ: That’s what Marcy Wheeler calls him. George P. Yeah.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Papadopoulos who’s only 30 years old, just a volunteer, so that’s a very low level. I should mention one thing. He’s charged with lying to the FBI, but it used to be before 19-, 2001, 2002, if you merely denied an accusation to the FBI you could not be charged with false statements. That was actually a Supreme Court ruling, quite recently, 2002 I think where that’s allowed. The reason for that was a good reason. Judges thought that if you merely denied a crime to the FBI, that that would then infringe on your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That was the prior thought. Then they changed that in 2002.
He’s charged with something that wasn’t really necessarily even a crime before 2002. Manafort and Gates are charged as acting as foreign agent, unregistered foreign agent, but apparently that statute has only been used a handful of times and resulted in only one or two convictions in all history. Credit to Robert Mueller, he’s grabbing at something at the lower levels, and that by everyone’s opinion, this is not just mine but everybody you listen to, is he’s using these charges then to try to squeeze Manafort, Gates and Papagalos, Papa …
AARON MATÉ: Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Papadopoulos. Oh my gosh. My brain. Papadopoulos’s in order to get them to flip and try then to go up the chain. He may have already done this with Papagapolous, since he’s been operating as a cooperating witness since July. No one knows if Papadopoulos has incriminated other people by wearing a wire or if there’s further information.
If this is all that Robert Mueller has, of course this won’t amount to much, and won’t of, course topple, the Trump administration, nor will it…
AARON MATÉ: Coleen, you know, the people I think who have the hardest time with the name Papadopoulos are people who grew up in British Columbia, Canada like me, where we had a pizza chain known as Panagopolis Pizza, so you can imagine my problems in trying to not say Panagopolis and trying to say Papadopoulos. I share your pain. It’s difficult.
COLEEN ROWLEY: I’ve written the word a few times. I would think I would get it, but I’m not, I don’t have a Greek background.
AARON MATÉ: It’s tough. In terms of his indictment, that’s what’s been really seized on here because unlike the Manafort and Gates indictment, his indictment actually has something to do with Russia and the 2016 campaign. He is accused of lying to the FBI about when he spoke to these contacts that are said to have Russian ties. I think he said that he initially told the FBI that he spoke to them before he came on the campaign, but actually it was revealed that he spoke with them after he came on the campaign. So you’re saying that under a previous law, that wouldn’t have been even a crime?
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, before this ruling, this Supreme Court ruling, if you merely denied a crime, without, if you go into detail like he did, trying to embellish then actually it was always a crime, but a mere denial of having done something which would incriminate yourself before this ruling it wasn’t a crime. You can see that the FBI has really used lying to the FBI. Title 18.1001 false statements has been constantly used. It’s how they got Scooter Libby and it’s been used a lot.
Obviously what most attorneys will tell you is just don’t say anything because as soon as you open your mouth you’re going to be in trouble. If you even deny something, they can still charge you. Again, if you embellished, even in the past if you embellished your lie then they could have charged you for false statement.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Let me ask you then about the contents of what he’s saying. Everyone, at least that I’ve read, has been taking it on faith, that A, what he’s saying is true in terms of that. For example, he was told that the Russians had thousands of emails belonging to Hillary Clinton. But also, B, no one’s questioned whether or not the people who he was speaking to are actually who they said they were.
The US government does not make a determination saying that yes, we think these people are A, it was a professor, it was a woman identified as Putin’s niece, although they say it was not Putin’s niece in the end, and C, some kind of person tied to the Russian foreign ministry. All the charging documents says is that this is what Papadopoulos was told that they are, who they are. Looking at what they say, the fact that, the fact that one of them was introduced as a relative of Putin, that Papadopoulos spoke to one of them over Skype, Skype which is part of the prism program, which the NSA can access. Does it sound to you like these were high level Russian government operatives? Or are people, or, I’m sorry, even people with connections to high level, high level elements of Russia?
COLEEN ROWLEY: You know, the information in the indictment is extremely sketchy. As you said it’s just full of gaps and questions. Basically it just creates more questions. One of the things that’s come out today is that when they were talking about the Hillary Clinton emails, they were not talking about the DNC emails that were alleged to have been hacked, or the Podesta emails.
They were talking about her private server emails, when she was the Secretary of State, and those emails were released by Wikileaks. They weren’t released by Wikileaks, but they were archived and they created a better way to search those emails that were released by the State Department. They were released at the same time.
AARON MATÉ: Right, but in defense of the Russiagate narrative here, we don’t know for sure that what exactly the emails, which emails were being discussed here. It could have been those emails but it also could have been, if they had indeed hacked emails, the Podesta and DNC emails.
COLEEN ROWLEY: That’s right. That’s exactly, that’s what I was trying to say. Is we don’t actually even know what emails this very vague reference that’s mentioned by a Scottish professor. Again it’s a Scottish professor that’s never been heard of. The fact that he says he knows some Russians and he knows a woman and she claims.
You have to imagine that in a campaign, in a presidential campaign especially, that has a large number of people working, especially at volunteer levels, that they’re going to be approached with offers of opposition research. This of course happened with the Hillary campaign as well. They hired Chris Steele to actually be getting information from Kremlin, people in the Kremlin.
If you look at how campaigns are operating, in fact that’s what Watergate was all about. It was breaking in. The rivalry between campaigns provokes this kind of need to get dirt on your opponent. I don’t think it’s on, it wouldn’t really be shocking that there were a lot of approaches and apparently there were on Trump’s side, but certainly there were on the Hillary side as well. We don’t know anything about the Scottish professor. He denies, he denies that, all of this. Like I said, unless Mueller was able to get more through Papadopoulos, wearing a wire for instance or somehow entrapping some of the people that he worked with in the Trump campaign. If he was being operated from July on and they have gotten some more information, that will change things but as it exists right now, I would say that there is really no smoking gun. The mainstream press has really jumped the gun in calling this a smoking gun because I don’t see too much there. It’s very sketchy.
AARON MATÉ: The professor’s name is Joseph Mifsud. Just to explain to anyone who has not read the indictment or read any of these many news reports, In fact, if they had read the news reports, they still might not understand it because the news has in some cases been so skewed. This professor is said to have met Papadopoulos on an overseas trip and promised him high level access to the Russian government, told him about the Russians having thousands of hacked emails and then trying to arrange meetings between the Trump campaign and Russia, which never happened.
In fact, one thing that Papadopoulos says in his plea agreement, there’s two things. As I mentioned he was told initially that a woman who he met through the professor was Putin’s niece. That turns out not to be true. He also was told that they, he would be introduced to the Russian ambassador in London, which also never happened. Which again raises more questions about who these people actually are, and the professor, for what it’s worth, he has said that this idea, as I think you mentioned Coleen, this idea of him bringing along a woman with him to meet Papadopoulos actually is not even true. He actually flat out denies that. He does acknowledge meeting Papadopoulos but he says I never introduced him to this woman he claims I did.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Exactly. Again, there’s a lot of, more questions than there are answers here. The only thing we don’t know is what other information. With Manafort, even though what he didn’t register as a foreign agent and apparently laundered a lot of money that he got, which I suspect is done very widely in Washington because there’s been so little prosecution for not registering and this money laundering, obviously is a pretty, if we had a prosecutor like Mueller on all of the public officials who are operating internationally, I think they could probably find money laundering charges like this on a large segment of our politically elite group.
Besides all of that, if Manafort somehow gets worried and says, “I’ll tell you everything I know,” then we’ll have something, to see if there’s something more interesting here. As it stands right now, our mainstream media’s really overreacting, I think, on what is known and trying to, they create stories where there are no facts.
AARON MATÉ Exactly Coleen. I mean this hope amongst many people that Manafort will flip and tell prosecutors what he knows assumes that he knows something. But there might be nothing to know. Let me just also add on the point you already made about Manafort and lobbying and how rare it is to get busted. I want to read you a headline that was in Politico from the veteran reporter Ken Silverstein. He called his article “I’ve Covered Foreign Lobbying for 20 years and I’m amazed that Manafort got Busted,” just because these kind of activities, as you mentioned are just so prevalent but prosecutions are so rare.
Finally, let me ask you about this news today. We have Google, Facebook and Twitter testifying before Congress in solemn tones. They’re apologizing for letting their platforms get infiltrated by Russians. Facebook today said that 126 million people saw Russian-linked content. They used a qualifier like that. This comes after initially, their initial review many months ago found no Russian government involvement. Then, after some pressure from Congress, they came up with this figure of about 3,000 ads and $100,000 worth of Russian-linked Facebook accounts. Your thoughts on Silicon Valley now joining in on the Russiagate parade today.
COLEEN ROWLEY: This actually may be the worst and most dangerous aspect of the so-called Russiagate for the average citizen. People like you and I who want to be on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and want to get information. It’s what Edward Snowden has said, is his reason for even giving out this information is we can’t be a democracy unless we know what’s going on, unless we have people that are releasing information and that we learned it through internet sites.
Unfortunately, our mainstream media now does not have a lot of credibility, so people have resorted. Now if you look at the story, when this Russiagate story started, it started as the Chris Steele, dodgy, salacious dossier, that was given to the FBI in the summer, that was peddled to mainstream news and there were no facts that could be verified really, so even mainstream news didn’t use it. But it got more steam after Trump’s election. It was actually then used almost in a way to threaten him on January 6th, by Comey, by FBI director Comey, telling Trump that, by the way I’m going to read you the dossier that was collected on you, and by the way it’s going to be leaked to the media in a couple of days.
That dossier has been largely discredited, but what replaced the dossier was then the emphasis on RT, Sputnik, Russian-funded media. It’s now morphed into the fact that there were only $100,000 of ads on Facebook and some ads on Twitter and so we have our Minnesota Senator in cloture now who is proposing legislation to monitor, not so much to monitor but to create what she says is more accountability and transparency on the Facebook but it looks like it could be the first step in actually censoring things that are coming from what they call fake news.
The problem is who gets to decide these things? This is basically hearkening back to McCarthyism and the notion that somebody in the media, mainstream media, is able to determine what is true and what’s not true. In fact, the mainstream media themselves have printed and published all kinds of false media. Google has been a part of this because they’ve created algorithms that have reduced the ability of the public to find certain sites. Some of the main sites that I think are most credible are on this blacklist that Google has created and now you have a very difficult time finding stories and articles by those sites.
Now this is extremely dangerous for democracy and for average citizens and it’s coming right out of the Russiagate, I think because the Chris Steele dodgy dossier did not pan out. We will find out if Mueller’s investigation is going to pan out and now what are we left with it? Is the Russian media, the efforts on the media, on social media, that they claim are somehow subverting American opinion or public opinion.
AARON MATÉ: It’s a lot.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Yeah.
AARON MATÉ: It’s stunning. Coleen, we thank you for joining us to help make sense of it. Coleen Rowley, retired FBI agent, former legal counsel also for the FBI, also a former whistleblower. Coleen, thank you.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Yup. Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.