Is it a surprise to find a Stalin apologist at the center of the Steele dossier scandal?
Gotta hand it to Special Counsel Robert Mueller: He knows how to set off a stick of dynamite. I refer, of course, to his office’s recent indictment of thirteen Russians in Russia, which we are now to chase after, yelling “Pearl Harbor!” on the Left and “No collusion!” on the Right, forgetting all about the coalescing revelations of corruption and conspiracy and, yes, Russian influence, to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016, and, failing that, to destroy the Trump presidency.
The key is still in the “dossier” spying scandal.
Nellie Ohr is the “dossier” spying scandal’s woman in the middle.
To one side of Ohr, there is the Fusion GPS team, including fellow contractor Christopher Steele. To the other, there is husband Bruce Ohr, who, until his “dossier”-related demotion, was No. 4 man at the Department of Justice, and a key contact there for Steele.
As central as Nellie Ohr’s placement is, her role in the creation of the “dossier” remains undefined. For example, the House Intelligence Committee memo on related matters vaguely tells us that Nellie Ohr was “employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump”; the memo adds that Bruce Ohr “later provided the FBI with all of his wife’s opposition research.” Senator Lindsey Graham more sensationally told Fox News that Nellie Ohr “did the research for Mr. Steele,” but details remain scarce.
Still, relevant facts have emerged. These include Nellie Ohr’s study in the USSR in 1989; her fluency in Russian and Ph.D. in Russian history in 1990; a 2010 CIA affiliation, which practically makes her former MI6 agent Steele’s “opposite number”; and the extremely curious detail, harkening back to earlier eras of spycraft, that on May 23, 2016, around the time she came on board Fusion GPS, Nellie Ohr applied for a ham radio operator’s license.
Notably, the “dossier” men in her life have tried to shield Ohr from public scrutiny, even at professional risk. Her husband, as the Daily Caller News Foundation reports, failed to disclose his wife’s employment with Fusion GPS and seek the appropriate conflict-of-interest waiver, which may have been an important factor in his demotion from associate deputy attorney general late last year.
Under Senate and House questioning, Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson consistently failed to disclose Nellie Ohr’s existence as one of his firm’s paid Russian experts, let alone that he hired her for the red-hot DNC/Clinton campaign Trump-Russia project.
Even Christopher Steele may have tried to keep Nellie Ohr “under cover.” Steele, put forth as the “dossier” author ever since its January 2017 publication in BuzzFeed, does not appear to have let on to his many media and political contacts that he had “dossier”-assistance from at least two fellow Fusion GPS Russian experts, Nellie Ohr and Edward Baumgartner. Baumgartner, interestingly, was a Russian history major at Vassar in the 1990s when Nellie Ohr taught Russian history there.
Thus, Nellie Ohr’s exact activities inside one of the great Russian-American disinformation campaigns of all time remain opaque. What most observers don’t realize, though, is that we already have a window onto her thinking through her strongly-etched, ideological view of Soviet history.
This is in contrast to what we know of Steele, aside from his widely reported anti-Trump animus. We may read that Steele was widely known as a “confirmed socialist” while president of the Cambridge Union debating society in 1986; we may see, thirty blank years later, that he chose to break the sensational outlines of his relationship with the FBI and role in its investigation of the Trump campaign in Mother Jones, a media outlet named for a famous American socialist; but Nellie Ohr has a paper trail.
This paper trail is comprised of a Stanford Ph.D. thesis and a series of academic book reviews, all published between 1990 and 2004 when Nellie Ohr, Harvard Class of 1983, was probably between the ages of 29 and 43. I mention her seasoned age because in the course of my own detailed analysis of Ohr and her writings here, here and here, I discovered something shocking that cannot be put down to or dismissed today as youthful inexperience: Nellie Ohr follows in the academic tradition of 1970s and 1980s “revisionism.”
Like me, most readers unencumbered by a Ph.D. will not immediately understand the term’s profound significance. Here is a beam of illumination from one of the movement’s progenitors, Sheila Fitzpatrick, who, in a 2007 overview of this “revisionist” school, explains its origins thus: “Quite a few of the 1970s revisionists were Marxists… who hoped to find that at least part of the promise of socialist revolution had been realized or could be recovered.” She further notes that the “political agenda” of the so-called New Left “undoubtedly influenced many American revisionists.”
These campus Marxists — sorry, “revisionists” — would soon dominate history departments of American universities, where, naturally, they taught various aspects of the “revisionist” line: that the original “Soviet experiment” remains viable; that Stalin’s crimes and his responsibility for them have been exaggerated (especially by that awful anti-communist historian Robert Conquest); that maybe they were even worth it all in the end. “Revisionists” were known for rejecting the “totalitarian model” of Soviet Russia as a politicized figment of Cold Warrior imaginations; however, when the Soviet Union fell apart and changed form in 1991, the “revisionists” seemed to have, too.
As analyzed in 1994 by anti-communist historian Walter Laqueur, these “revisionists” included American academics who “downplayed the human cost of forcible collectivization of agriculture.”
Did I mention Nellie Ohr’s Ph.D. thesis is titled “Collective farms and Russian peasant society, 1933-1937: the stabilization of the kolkhoz order”?
“Kolkhoz” order means “collective farm” order, so Ohr’s subtitle refers to the “stabilization” of the collective farm order. The phrasing alone is suggestive of some silverish lining after the six million or more people were killed by Stalin’s state-created famine, mass deportations, and general war of “de-kulakization.”
In the introduction to her 418-page paper, Ohr sets forth her main arguments, citing many of “revisionism’s” leading figures — J. Arch Getty, Roberta Manning, Gabor Rittersporn, Sheila Fitzpatrick.
Speaking “revisionist” lingo, Nellie Ohr turns the millions killed by Stalin into “excesses,” which, in Ohr’s words, “sometimes represented desperate measures taken by a government that had little real control over the country.” (Poor Stalin.) She depicts purges as representing “to some degree a center-periphery conflict in which the ‘state-building’ central government tried to bring headstrong local satraps under control.”
Here, in full context, are the “revisionist” trends she says her thesis will “corroborate”:
Recently, Western historians [i.e., “revisionists”] have been using materials from the Smolensk archive to back up their arguments that power flowed not only from the top down but also from the bottom up to some degree; that excesses sometimes represented desperate measures taken by a government that had little real control over the country; that policies such as dekulakization and the purges of the later 1930s had some social constituency among aggrieved groups of poorer peasants; and that the purges represented to some degree a center-periphery conflict in which the ‘state-building’ central government tried to bring headstrong local satraps under control.
In later years, Ohr reviewed several books by “revisionists,” further underscoring her simpatico perspective. Even in the dry code of academic writing, some of her statements ring out. Here’s one from a review of Robert W. Thurston’s Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia (1939-1941), a book controversial (notorious) for its Terror-lite thesis.
One must commend this attempt to account for the agonizing paradoxes of the Stalinist state, one which was building a legal structure, yet tortured and executed innocent civilians, and which offered opportunities to poor people while denying them political representation.
Oh, those agonizing paradoxes. Awful enough inside ivy-covered walls teaching young people, but something else again at the heart of what is still unfolding as a government-wide-conspiracy.
Ohr recommends the Thurston book to “specialists.” To put his arguments “into perspective,” she suggests Chris Ward’s Stalin’s Russia, which, in a separate review, she earlier praised as “a serious contender for undergraduate course adoption.” This, by the way, is academic-speak for two thumbs up, if not also five stars.
Ohr’s recommendations put her own arguments “into perspective,” too. At one time, the New York Times defined the range of historical debate on Stalin’s “collectivization” as stretching between Robert Conquest and Chris Ward. Conquest, renowned for his works on the purges and the terror-famine in the Ukraine, is also famous as a judgmental anti-Communist, and gloriously so. Ward, an emeritus senior lecturer at Cambridge, it seems, is non-judgmental to a point of understanding Stalin’s crimes. Walter Laqueur pointed out that the subtitle to the conclusion of Ward’s book is: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’ “ — to understand all is to forgive all. Ward has also been noted for his “contagious enthusiasm” for the writings of Trotsky.
Nellie Ohr reviewed Ward’s book in the mid-1990s while she was still teaching Russian history at Vassar. This may account for the following allusion to the classroom, where — who knows? — perhaps her future Fusion GPS colleague Edward Baumgartner was taking notes.
To introduce students to the Stalin era can be a frustrating task. To convey the terror and excitement of the period, one can assign a memoir of a prison camp victim or an observer such as John Scott or Maurice Hindus.
Terror and excitement?
Not incidentally, Maurice Hindus was an epic Soviet apologist. As for John Scott, Whittaker Chambers i.d.’d him in Witness as belonging to the cabal inside Time magazine that tried to get the ex-Communist witness fired; much later (to be fair, probably after Ohr wrote her review) Scott was revealed to have infiltrated the OSS for the NKVD (codename ”Ivanov”).
Such accounts, however, fail to explain the excesses of the Stalin era, and whether, in Alec Nove’s words, Stalin was necessary…
“Excesses” again. And, really now: Was Stalin necessary? Perhaps this question was a topic of “frustrating” debate in Ohr’s “revisionist” classroom.
Today, however, none of this is academic. We now know there is a central figure in the “dossier” spying scandal who finds “agonizing paradoxes,” and “terror and excitement” in Stalin’s dictatorship, where, after all, “excesses” sometimes happen.
What’s really alarming is I’m sure Vladimir Putin does, too.
This is not a quip. In Putin’s version of “thaw,” it is mass-murdering Stalin who has re-acquired a kind of respectability and even reverence that is not incompatible with aspects of academic “revisionism.” I don’t take lightly the possibility that the anti-Trump conspirators have more in common with the old Kremlin than currently imagined — especially when we consider that Donald Trump, whether he or anyone else realizes it, is the most instinctively anti-communist president elected in generations.
One of the conventionally accepted underpinnings of the Trump-Russia “collusion” story is that Putin supported Trump over Clinton. The American Left insists Putin elected Trump; the American Right acknowledges Putin favored Trump. At this point, the only argument is over how much Putin’s alleged support for Trump mattered on Election Day.
Within this same false, in my view, context, there is cover even for felonious conspiratorial acts, even for domestic spying — hallmarks, of course, of anti-democratic dictatorships everywhere, including the old USSR and Russia today.
According to this flawed logic, these ends (opposing Putin’s will) justify these means (domestic spying, conspiracy). It becomes only right for senior Justice Department officials to deceive the FISA court for the “greater good” — fighting Putin and his “puppet” Trump. After all, we “know” Putin supported Trump and “hated” Clinton. Why? Because all of the bright and shiny Russian clues, very much including the “dossier,” tell us so.
This alone should give us pause.
Fourteen months ago, in between Trump’s election and inauguration, I asked a retired (Cold War vintage), extremely experienced intelligence professional what he thought of the news of the day (which is still the news of the day): that the Russians “hacked” the DNC, and therefore “hacked” the election. He replied that the Russians were more than good enough to mask any such activity if they wanted to; further, they were more than good enough not to mask such activity if they wanted to.
In other words, there is a strategy behind these reported Kremlin activities to ponder. I have yet to hear any current “Intelligence Community” (IC) chieftain make this point. Their approach seems to be akin to that of law enforcement investigating a common bank robbery: Find out who picked the lock, and the crime is definitively solved. (Not that any of the IC agencies, including the FBI, ever directly investigated the “lock-picking” at the DNC; the FBI and wider IC assessment relies on the analysis of a DNC contractor.) Once upon a Cold War time, somebody might have pointed out that such linear thinking was wholly inadequate to understanding the non-linear “dialectic.”
Today’s simplistic IC solutions, however, enthrall the media and echo all around a public square beset by a communal lack of imagination that is particularly acute in the post-Soviet era.
Remember when the Soviet Union “vanished” in 1991? So, too, all of the experts told us, did its nasty communist strategies to destroy the United States and control the world. How marvelous it was, then, that Russia stopped running its Soviet-era intelligence armies and terror networks against us — except, of course, for CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who was arrested in 1994, three years after the “end” of the USSR, while working for a “defunct” KGB. Then there was Soviet-Russian spymaster Sergei Tretyakov, busily orchestrating old-time subversion against us until his defection in 2000. Oh, and don’t forget the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, dead-dropping away for the Kremlin until his shock-arrest in 2001. And what about FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned in 2006 by polonium almost certainly on Putin’s orders) and his 2005 claims that Russian intelligence trained Ayman al-Zawaheri in 1998, before Zawaheri penetrated and later became head of Al Qaeda by 2011? And what about the East coast “illegals” network of fake Americans, arrested and quickly deported in 2010 so as not to short- circuit Obama’s Russian “reset”?
Good thing that was nearly 20 years after Communist Russia nose-dived into history’s dust heap, otherwise the “new” Kremlin might still be trying to subvert us…
But not just via Facebook and other social media hoaxes, which Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now, in all seriousness, bringing to book. As a chronicler of Kremlin influence operations in Washington, I, by rights, should be thrilled the U.S. government is finally “discovering” that such influence operations even exist after a century of denial, but a grotesque fraud is apparent.
Consider an earlier case with eerie parallels. As FBI Director (2001-2013), Robert Mueller presided over the Bureau’s decade-long counterintelligence operation known as “Ghost Stories,” which targeted the deep-cover ring of Russian “illegals” mentioned above. In June 2010, the FBI netted this ring of covert Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) operatives, which was successfully boring into elite circles, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s — and then sent them packing ASAP to Mother Russia.
Why? All of the available evidence strongly suggests that this painstaking FBI work of a decade was thrown away to protect Hillary Clinton, the once and future presidential candidate, who was at risk of being compromised. As FBI counterintelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi put it: “We were becoming very concerned they were getting close enough to a sitting US cabinet member that we thought we could no longer allow this to continue.”
Never one to save the republic instead of herself, Hillary Clinton “worked feverishly” to get these Russian agents deported before they could be adequately debriefed or otherwise exploited, as J. Michael Waller writes. Remember, June 2010 was a busy month for the Clintons: Rosatom was initiating its purchase of Uranium One; Bill Clinton was pocketing $500,000 from that KGB-linked Moscow bank, Renaissance Capital, which was “talking up” Uranium One shares (even as $145 million was sloshing into the Clinton Foundation); President Obama was pushing for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, and all the “reset” rest. The exposure of a highly trained network of SVR operatives targeting Hillary Clinton among others could not have been more inconvenient. How do you say, “Get them out of here on the double” in Russian?
Looking back, I don’t recall FBI Director Mueller in a lather over this Russian “meddling,” or “influence” on the Obama administration. Last time I looked, he did not resign from his FBI directorship in protest of this crude administration cover-up, either. Maybe he was too busy hiding evidence from Congress of the so-called Mikerin probe, the investigation into a Russian bribery scheme to control an American uranium trucking firm, even as U.S. lawmakers were examining the proposed sale of Uranium One to the Russian government.
Thus, in FBI Director Mueller’s treatment of the Russian espionage ring in we see a funhouse-mirror-image of Special Counsel Mueller’s Russian social media indictments. In 2010, without a single indictment or anything comparable, Mueller’s FBI did its part in deporting from American soil a network of high-value SVR operatives for political reasons; in 2018, without any expectation of prosecution, Mueller’s Special Counsel office indicted a network of Russian Internet hooligans on Russian soil, also for political reasons.
In both cases, it is our national security that suffers while Mueller’s political masters benefit. In 2010, they wanted Obama-Clinton protected from real Russian exposure; in 2018 they want Trump destroyed by concocted Russian exposure.
Enter the “dossier.”
Earlier this month, the Hill reported that “an FBI informant connected to the Uranium One controversy told three congressional committees… that Moscow routed millions of dollars to America with the expectation it would be used to benefit Bill Clinton’s charitable efforts while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quarterbacked a ‘reset’ in U.S.-Russian relations.”
Even if the information-warriors in the MSM won’t call it “Russian influence,” let’s not kid ourselves: Putin’s Russia got what it paid for, from those infamous U.S. uranium stocks, to Obama’s “flexibility,” to hypersonic missile engine technology, to WTO membership and more, all despite that latter-Obama-second-term chill — in itself a political zig-zag with historically suspicious resonance.
Then, improbably, along came Trump, and neither Republican nor Democrat could stop him. When Smash-Mouth Hillary tried to tag him Putin’s “puppet” during the final presidential debate in October 2016, it was an act of desperation, and, perhaps, her own ”insurance policy” for the unthinkable — defeat.
Even as Clinton spoke on the debate stage, Nellie “Terror and Excitement” Ohr was still laboring in the Fusion GPS Russia shop (working her ham radio?), which was still whipping up the final installments of DNC/Clinton “opposition research,” including the “dossier,” to back up Clinton’s wild, Pravda-esque charge.
It didn’t stick, of course, not in time to vault Clinton over the Election Day finish line first.
What a sigh of relief Putin must have drawn inside his palace on November 8, 2016 now that he finally had a “puppet” to call his own inside the White House; someone who, in addition to his counter-revolutionary “America First” agenda to restore U.S. manufacturing, prosperity and sovereignty (joy of Kremlin joys,) strongly believed the U.S. military was “depleted” and dangerously behind Russia’s… someone who, after so many years of neglect, wanted to modernize and expand, not shrink and mothball, America’s nuclear arsenal… Phew! What a relief! Putin almost had to face a “real” neo-Cold Warrior who wanted to follow and accelerate Obama’s military decline, someone who said on the campaign trail that “the last thing we need” are next-generation nuclear-armed cruise missiles….
Unless Trump was always and forever acting, does the above scenario make sense? Isn’t it at least conceivable that the Putin-wants-Trump line contradicts sensible Kremlin strategy? To me, Putin-wants-Trump (who wants next-generation nuclear anything he can get) sounds like a classic Moscow influence operation, another iteration of “fake newski” to manipulate the ignorant West. From Lenin is a capitalist, to “Uncle Joe” supports religious freedom, to Andropov likes jazz, to Putin (ruthlessness incarnate) is a devout Christian: We fall for it every single time.
If I am correct, where does that leave this Russian-American disinformation campaign, paid for by the DNC/Clinton campaign, assisted in still-mysterious ways by Stalin apologist Ohr, now developing the rigor mortis of Washington conventional wisdom? Four legs good; two legs bad. Putin loves Trump, Putin hates Hillary — and here’s the “dossier” to prove it and “collusion,” too.
The answer requires more study, more investigation, more courage, and another question.
In the bad old days, the classic communist influence operation executed Kremlin strategy in Washington and elsewhere by deploying a lengthy chain of agents of influence and “trusted contacts,” fellow travelers and all-important dupes.
Are we looking at the 21st century model?