LIONEL PODCAST: The New F-Word — Fake News, Fake Politics and Fake Outrage

A most learned denizen of #LionelNation wrote as follows.

It is a commonplace of espionage novels from the lurid and fanciful to the dark and serious that intelligence agencies run counterintelligence disinformation campaigns against competitor nations and enemies, even against friends.  And everything we know about actual intelligence services supports these fictional stories.  It is well known also that the quality of information that the agencies obtain from many sources ranges from the highly informative to the ludicrous.  And the sources are rewarded or not rewarded accordingly.  All reports and purloined documents, expensive or not, are viewed with deep suspicion, and especially if they are timely or relevant.  As one of John Le Carré’s protagonists says, “topicality is always suspect.”  Information is similarly suspect if it has been solicited.  The prudent spy knows that a source will be tempted to tell him what he wants to know, regardless of whether it resembles reality or not.  In short, spies trust no one, especially their sources, as there is a fair chance that they are either counterespionage agents, fortune seekers, or downright charlatans and fantasists.  Further, the bosses of these spies are skeptical of their own agents, knowing that an agent may be tempted to show success where there is none or where there is even disinformation.  The deception campaigns run by the British in WW2 are celebrated, as are the exploits of Mossad. They were successful, not by being gullible, but by persuading their enemies to be gullible. It is no mean feat.

In addition to “considering the source”, intelligence agencies are at pains to evaluate the materials presented as to their content.  Do they seem plausible?  Do they contradict other verified information? Is their significance inflated?  Are they “chickenfeed” or the “Crown Jewels”*.  If the source is suspect, could the information still be of quality or vice versa?  The spymaster’s lot is not an ‘appy one.

So it is very strange that the recent “dossier” of “information” about President-elect Trump was passed around so many people as if it had been cleared to the highest level by the top of the Department of Central Intelligence and now was fit for secure and confidential dissemination to those who “need to know”.  No.  It somehow came into the hands of John McCain, MI6, CIA, FBI, private parties, President Obama himself, newspapers, and website proprietors and God knows who else.  Has anything like this ever happened to any piece of intelligence that was regarded as sensitive or important?  No. That is not the way things happen.  John McCain himself said that it somehow came into his possession, source undisclosed, and he felt it was his civic duty to pass it on to the FBI.  Any intelligence agency worth its salt would have sent it back with a firm, “no thanks, we do not accept unsourced, unverified materials from anyone not vetted by the agency.  We advise you to destroy all copies of this document as it could be used by our adversaries to subvert our political system. We also advise you not to accept any materials claiming to be sensitive or concerning the country’s defense and to advise the source to bring the material directly to us.”

What did happen, according to his own testimony, is that John McCain took it upon himself to accept this information like he was some sort of volunteer spook, and read it and pass it on to the FBI.  The very fact that he is a publicly known antagonist of Donald Trump should have cautioned any prudent man not to traffic in potentially damaging and potentially false information about a political adversary. Could it be a trap?  Did he imagine himself some septuagenarian James Bond?

And then there is the material itself.  Apart from any considerations of protocol or prudent behavior, if he was going to read the material, could he not gather something from its content?  He is, one would hope, an educated and intelligent man.  Let’s say he was given a secret looking folder with a typed copy of the text of a National Enquirer inside, minus the pictures. The pages contain a story about a dog faced boy, an alien abduction, and the “news” that Pope Francis is really a woman and is now pregnant by Justin Trudeau. Would he have passed this on to the Vatican, on the off chance that they might want to know?  Yet the “story” in the infamous “dossier” is so lurid, so ludicrous, so gratuitously adolescent that I wonder if even the Enquirer would give it the time of day.  What, did he not smell a rat?  Did he ever go back to his source and ask them where he got this crap?  Did he report the source to the FBI as a potential foreign agent trying to disseminate “false news”?  No, sorry, that was not a thing yet.  In the past, apparently all typed documents from questionable sources were truthful until proven false.  What an innocent world that was six months ago.

So, did John McCain or anyone else in the entire troupe of people who saw this document, anyone, ask: “what is this trash?“  And then toss it in the shredder in case they got caught possessing it? No. At least I haven’t found any. Rather, they all, with round eyed innocence, said they kept it, waiting to see if the information could be confirmed or denied. To me, this proves conclusively that they were all possessed of a virulent strain of confirmation bias.  Their gut told them beyond a doubt that this document was dreck.  But their political and partisan brain told them to hope, just possibly, maybe, with a bit of luck that it was true.  And so they kept it.  And the fact that they kept it was not a secret.  So when went public with the document they knew they had better fess up, not only to seeing the document, but also to not going public with it as it had not been verified. Nice of them. Whom did they expect to verify it. God?  Intelligence agencies are not in the habit of verifying much of anything, and certainly do not randomly publicize juicy information on public figures.  That sort of prize is kept for a rainy day in spy land.  And if they have truly damaging information about suspected criminal behavior, the normal procedure is to hand it over to the FBI for referral for possible arrest, indictment and trial.   As it was, to quote Comey, “no reasonable prosecutor” would take such a case on.  To be blunt, no prosecutor, in his right mind, or tripping on acid would be seen within a mile of this libelous and putrid fabrication. True, information is often leaked.  But this was not leaked; it was apparently a dirt digging report commissioned by someone opposed to Trump and the commission was carried out by a supposedly retired British spy.  Clearly the spy got carried away and provided them and everyone else’s uncle with this fake “intelligence”, this unverified “intelligence”, this patently stupid “intelligence”.

Yet, BuzzFeed, in one of the more egregiously self-destructive moves of this bizarre post election season, saw fit, not only to publish it, but to accompany it with a statement that could be handed to any junior libel lawyer as a fait accompli, as his entire case, as his ticket to the bigtime and to a whopping fee.  And it was signed off with this most incredible flourish, that BuzzFeed had no verification that the document contained any truth whatsoever.  But whatever mad motive BuzzFeed had for doing this, the timing seemed perfect – right before Trump’s first press conference as President Elect.  As we mentioned before, “topicality is always suspect”. But it does not matter to a suicide mission such as this.  When the “information” bomb goes off, the guy with the explosive vest loses all significance.  The target is the thing.  Was it damaged or not?

Unfortunate for all concerned the answer is “not”.  Sure there was a lot of smoke, of hand wringing, and pearl clutching.  But Trump walked away with his dignity intact and his enemies looking sordid, petty and prurient.  True, stench like this, true or not, hangs around.  But to whom does it attach?  Where does it linger?  Around Trump? Not likely. Clapper, that paragon of rectitude and truth-speaking, has already publicly declared the document to be spurious.  It is the dwarfish equivalent of the Donation of Constantine or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Trash.  A blood libel.  A basement dweller’s masturbatory fantasy.  No, the stink, unfortunately for them, hangs around the McCains, the CNN’s and the other “news” outlets that glommed on to this drivel in the off-chance it might be true. The stink even clings to the outgoing President, what’s his name.  Because he saw it also.  And he did not shut it down immediately.  Powerless or unprincipled?  As BuzzFeed said, you decide.

So, another act in the petty drama of the nadir of the queen of deceit, Hillary Clinton, draws to a close. Did she see the document? It really does not matter. The vortex created by her political aspirations going down the drain of history is strong enough to pull many people with her to their perdition.  But they are not without agency, not mere collateral damage.  They made their decisions and they die by them, politically speaking.   Their true misfortune was to encounter the Coriolis effect of Donald Trump. Absent Trump, their mendacity and smallness would have remained concealed.  With Trump they hit a category five hurricane. They may not recover.

* Terms used by John LeCarré in several of his spy novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  

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