13 July, 2018

Reading between the lines in Strzok's testimony

It's an old joke among lawyers: If you have the law on your side, argue the law; if you have the facts, argue the facts; if you have neither, pound the table. 

There was a lot of table-pounding (and the occasional foaming at the mouth) at the open hearings yesterday, which attempted to make Peter Strzok into some kind of dark figure and (somehow) defend the president.  It was a failure.  If this is the best they could do, Donald Trump might want to reconsider returning from his foreign trip.  Perhaps Putin would let him stay in Russia. But I doubt that he would.  It's not like Trump was actually an agent.  More like a useful idiot.  And apparently he hasn't been reading his briefing books, and the pros have been avoiding talking to him about sensitive sources and methods, so he may not have all that much useful intelligence to trade for his dacha on the Black Sea.  

If anything, the hearings (what I saw of them) made Peter Strzok into a hero. Credible.  Calm in the face of insults and stupidity.  Clear about what he could, and could not, talk about in an open hearing.  He came across as a professional counterintelligence agent.  He sort of reminded me of my Dad (and that's rare praise).  

But there was one statement he made in the hearing that caught my attention. Actually, it pulled me out of my chair. And since I don't see anyone else making this connection, I guess I will.  Strzok (with permission, I'm sure) pulled the curtain aside just a little bit on the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation.  This is what grabbed my attention:

The information we had which was alleging a Russian offer of assistance to a member of the Trump campaign was of extraordinary significance. It was credible. It was from an extraordinarily sensitive and credible source.

What, exactly, does that mean?  "Intel-speak" tends to avoid exaggeration.  If anything, it tends to be overcautious.  Peter Strzok was a senior counterintelligence official, with years of experience in investigating, disrupting, and prosecuting Russian intelligence operations in the United States.  His record is exemplary.  He was, in fact, one of the first of a handful of people who knew what the FBI knew about Trump-Russia.  He could have, with a few words, undermined the Trump campaign.  He didn't do it.  The best available evidence is that he didn't even think of doing it.  He is that kind of professional.  Which means that every word he uses in an official capacity is considered.  Every word means something--no more, no less.

So what, exactly, was he saying?  It's been decades since I had any special access, but the meanings of some words were drummed into my head.  Most of the politicians probably missed it--exaggeration and spin are their stock in trade.  But, to me, it was like he stood on the desk with a bullhorn.  

The use of verbal probability estimates in National Intelligence Estimates has changed over time (for an overview of word counts see the MA thesis of Rachel Kesselman (Mercyhurst, 2008)).  But this is about the usual: it comes from a (now declassified) 2007 NIE.

Estimates of likelihood.  Because analytical judgments are not certain, we use probabilistic language...  Terms such as probablylikelyvery likely, or almost certainly indicate a greater than even chance.

A chart of the continuum provided in the NIE makes it clear that probably or likely is around a sixty or seventy-five percent estimate of likelihood. Very likely is around eighty to ninety percent.  Almost certainly is over ninety percent.  There is no such thing as a certain assessment (100 percent)--there is always room for error.  But if you have to bet, likely is good enough to bet your money, very likely is good enough to bet your job, and almost certainly is good enough to bet your life.  

One can also chart the confidence in assessments, which is based on the quality, scope, and sourcing of the evidence on which the estimate is based.  A high confidence is an indication of high-quality information.  It's not certain, but it's damn near close.  Moderate confidence means the information comes from a credible source.  It's plausible.  Low confidence means there are questions about the source's credibility or plausibility.  It's possible, but you wouldn't want to base your decision on it.  Curveball, the Iraqi source passed along by German intelligence to the US, was in the judgement of the Germans a low confidence source.  The Americans chose to trust him because he fit the prejudices of senior administration officials, which led (in part) to the Iraq War of 2003.

So let's take another look at the testimony.  Strzok tells us the source was extraordinarily sensitive and credible.  This is the level of having a loyal agent inside the other side's agency--an agent with access to information most other insiders would not have.  This is a source so important, so sensitive, that to even release his report into normal channels (let alone to the public) would lead to an immediate manhunt, his discovery, torture, and execution.

No wonder Strzok kept his mouth shut!

And no wonder, once the Trump-Russia story began to surface through other channels, we began to see a series of murders of people in Russia who might have had some involvement in the operation.  This is not just about the "Steele Dossier".  Steele is a good spy, using the sources available to him outside of Russia, and it looks like he did a pretty good job.  But Strzok had his source before seeing anything from Steele.  And Strzok's source was someone with inside knowledge.  If not inner circle, then pretty damn close.

And Strzok is telling us he knew--perhaps not well enough to prove in an American court, but well enough that he would have been willing to bet his life and the lives of the people he cares about--he knew the Russians were openly offering assistance to at least one member of the Trump campaign.  And if it was happening at all, it was an operation planned and approved at the top.  The top of the Russian government--certainly.  The top of the Trump campaign?  That was something that deserved a much closer look.


OBE--Overtaken by Events--the news has broken that the Mueller team has indicted a number of senior Russian military intelligence officials for breaking into DNC servers, precisely when Donald Trump was calling on them, publicly, to do something like that.  Interesting.  I have to admire the timing.  I have to wonder--did the FBI officials who authorized Strzok to open the curtain, just a little, know this was coming today?

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