It has been a few months now since “The New York Times” first reported on the curious story how an Australian diplomat might have been the starting point of the never-ending “Russiagate” investigations:
During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.
Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.
The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the F.B.I. to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired.
Since then, both the Russiagate investigation saga as well as the story of that fateful, as Australians might call it, “night on the piss” have only gotten murkier. While there is still no evidence that I am aware of that has come to light demonstrating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, the circumstances of how the initial investigations into the potential Russian interference in the presidential election have started in 2016 and how they have been subsequently conducted beg an increasing number of questions. Not the least the Downer story itself, which has received a new twist with the report by Kimberley A Strassel in “The Wall Street Journal” yesterday (link here for those without subscription).
Before proceeding any further, I want to clarify that I’m not implying any improper conduct by any of the major participants, nor am I suspecting or speculating about any nefarious “Deep State” conspiracies behind the scenes. However, the story of the investigations, now almost two years in the running, are, if anything, even more convoluted than the collusion or meddling allegations, and it’s not inappropriate for the public to want to know the full story of just exactly what has happened, starting with the Downer-Papadopoulos drinks.
What I – and no doubt many others – would like to know is this:
How did the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting come about? Back in April, having interviewed Downer on his exit as Australia’s High Commissioner (ambassador) in London, Jacquelin Magnay reported in “The Australian”:
Downer’s nose for diplomatic intrigue was piqued when Papadopoulos publicly attacked the then British prime minister, David Cameron, for criticising Trump as “divisive, stupid and wrong’’. Papadopoulos demanded an apology… Downer, or [counsellor at the High Commission, Erika] Thompson at Downer’s request, made contact with Papadopoulos through an Israeli contact in early May 2016.
The “divisive, stupid and wrong” comment and Papadopoulos’ response were reported by the British media in the early May. Request for a Prime Ministerial apology from the Trump campaign would have perhaps been of some interest to Australia’s ambassador in the UK, but Downer’s quest for further information is rather strange. Why would a minor spat between Republican primary wannabe and the British government be of such a great interest to Australia? Who was the Israeli intermediary and why were his or her services required to reach out to Papadopoulos? Was Papadopoulos in the UK already at the time, and if not, did he agree to come to the UK just to meet with an Australian ambassador? And why – what was in it for Papadopoulos? While it’s true that one of the tasks that diplomats have is to gather all intelligence that might be of interest and consequences to their countries, it seems a rather unusual meeting for a busy and very senior diplomat and a junior campaign team member to have (Downer says he was interested in Trump’s foreign policy in general, particularly in Asia, Australia’s own backyard, but wasn’t Australia’s American embassy in a better position to gather such insight?)
What did Papadopoulos exactly say about Russia and Hillary Clinton? Downer subsequently said in an interview that Papadopoulos “mentioned the Russians might use material that they have on Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election, which may be damaging” but this was the extent of the revelation and the nature of the material was not mentioned. It is a rather strange thing for Papadopoulos to confide in a foreign diplomat, and it’s also rather strange that Downer did not pursue this topic further to get more information out of Papadopoulos.
How did this tidbit reach the American authorities? Downer says that he passed it on back to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade back in Canberra a day or two later, and “The Australian” article suggests that around two months later, Downer’s former colleague on the Liberal frontbench*, Australia’s ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, passed this information to his hosts (the original “NYT” story implies this was in response to the DNC emails appearing on Wikileaks, suggesting that someone back in Australia had by then thought they have connected the proverbial dots, though this is just guesswork).
But… This being a piece of (albeit vague) information about a potential interference by an unfriendly country in the election process of an ally, DFAT should have promptly passed it to Australia’s foreign intelligence organisation, ASIS. ASIS, in turn, would likely analyse its credibility. As there was not much by way of specific detail to go about, the Aussie spooks would have looked at the source of the information, the circumstance in which the information was acquired, and whether it connected in any way to any information already in possession. My guess would be that ASIS would have deemed it important enough to pass peer-to-peer to their American colleagues at the CIA, or perhaps directly to the FBI, with both of whom ASIS has a special intelligence-sharing arrangement (the so called “Five Eyes” alliance also comprising Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain).
In her article, however, Strassel alleges that it was neither Australia’s intelligence agency nor Joe Hockey that in the end passed the information to the Americans, but Downer directly – to the US embassy in London. Is this true? What happened to Downer’s original cable to Canberra sent following the boozy night? Was it acted upon and how? If not, why not? (as Strassel writes, “The document that launched the FBI probe contains no foreign intelligence whatsoever. So if Australian intelligence did receive the Downer info, it didn’t feel compelled to act on it.”) Did Downer then take it upon himself to pass it on to his American counterpart in the UK – which would make this a rather unconventional and unofficial channel? And why would he do that, since he had already dispatched the information to his superiors in Australia and could have expected it to make its way to the US though normal channels?
Who the exact American recipient of this story was and how it came to be acted upon is another story altogether, which raises even more questions at the US end. Alexander Downer already has his unusual place in this story as (to paraphrase Goethe writing about Helen of Troy) the face that launched the thousand leaks. It would be good for everyone else and for the sake of history to know more about just what exactly happened those few days in May in London.
*for non-Australian readers, both Downer and Hockey are former conservative politicians and senior ministers in John Howard’s government, Downer himself being Australia’s longest serving foreign minister over the entire duration of the Howard government, 1996-2007. They have been appointed to their diplomatic posts after the centre-right Liberal Party returned to power in 2013.