Not every anonymously sourced media freakout over a nothingburger story surrounding Trump and Russia warrants a response, but this time is different. Last week media outlets hyped an anonymously-sourced report that Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian election interference, was investigating Erik Prince, founder of the private security company Blackwater.
“Mueller gathers evidence that 2017 Seychelles meeting was effort to establish back channel to Kremlin,” read The Washington Post’s headline.
The story goes that in January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration, Prince met with officials from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at a luxury resort on the Seychelles islands. These UAE officials facilitated a “backchannel” meeting between Prince and a Russian head of a sovereign-wealth-fund, Kirill Dmitriev.
Late last year, Prince told Congress and the media that he was at the resort to meet the UAE officials for a business deal, and happened upon Mr. Dmitriev by chance. According to Prince, they had a beer together, and that was it.
If we are to believe these anonymous sources supposedly connected to Mueller, Prince’s story is now in question because of a witness to the meeting who is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
From The Washington Post: “A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.”
That witness is George Nadar, a Lebanese-American businessman who allegedly started to cooperate with Mueller after he had the unfortunate luck of landing in Dulles airport, around mid-January of this year, and meeting FBI agents at the gate who kindly escorted him to an hours-long grilling session.
Americans Should Doubt Anonymously Sourced Stories
First off, the news story here may or may not be true. There is no way to know if Mueller actually is investigating this angle, because the report is based entirely on anonymous sources.
The reliance that our media has on anonymous sourcing is absolutely staggering and should trouble every American. (This is what happens when the intelligence community has too much power, and seeks to control the narrative by leaking to friendly reporters at friendly outlets). It certainly doesn’t meet the standards of traditional journalism.
Anonymously sourced stories should be doubted not only because the source isn’t willing to withstand public scrutiny, but also because media outlets have been routinely misled by anonymous sources in the past year, to the point where they published fake news. The latest example of this, as detailed by Mollie Hemingway, was an anonymously-sourced report that Republican Rep. Devin Nunes is behind leaks, which was then publicly shot down by Republican Sen. Richard Burr — one of the supposed main characters of the “story.”
Even this week’s story about Prince and the Russian wealth-fund manager was botched by the The Washington Post (an organization that actually has a tremendous record when compared to CNN). Originally, The Washington Post reported that the “backchannel” meeting occurred in 2016, which seemed to imply it occurred before the election, when in fact it occurred a year later, after the election.
“This story has been updated to reflect that the meeting in the Seychelles took place in January 2017, not 2016,” the correction read. That’s a huge screwup. It’s the difference between evidence of normal meetings between an incoming administration and foreign powers, and what could be evidence of outright collusion.
As is often the case with these kinds of mistaken reports, The Washington Post’s correction didn’t stop the completely false claim of collusion from being spread far-and-wide across the internet:
BOOM! The Washington Post reports that Robert Mueller has evidence that a meeting which took place in Seychelles that included Erik Prince was used to try and set up a back channel for comminicatuon between Russia and Trump’s team.
Class for Collusion 101 is dismissed!
— Ed Krassenstein (@EdKrassen) March 8, 2018
Wow! Mueller closing in on proving that when Erik Prince went to Seychelles in 2016 it was to establish a back channel for communication between the Kremlin and Trump Admin. #ClosingInhttps://t.co/V287TcJ936
— Nick Knudsen (@DemWrite) March 8, 2018
Backchannels Are Not A Bad Thing
Doubt anonymous sources. That said, if the anonymous sources are correct in the Prince story, this is a real problem.
Here’s The Washington Post again: “While Mueller is probing the circumstances of the Seychelles meeting, he is also more broadly examining apparent efforts by the Trump transition team to create a back channel for secret talks between the new administration and the Kremlin.”
If Mueller really is investigating backchannels between the incoming Trump administration and the Kremlin, we have reached peak idiocy. A backchannel simply means that instead of picking up the phone and calling the Kremlin, and having a zillion people listen to and leak your conversation, you have some intermediaries sit down privately to establish a one-on-one relationship. This “protected forum” of “regular diplomacy, but with more intimacy and without the bureaucracy,” has many advantages.
Richard A. Moss, a professor at the United States Naval War College, puts it this way: “If they choose, Russian and U.S. leaders may use back channels to clearly convey what they see as their core interests, to explore potential areas of cooperation, and to try to mitigate conflict or escalation … In the Internet era, when provocations and communications travel instantly around the globe, keeping back channels open could conceivably help prevent or minimize confrontation.”
Backchannels literally keep the peace, but our Millenial-filled media who might not know better, and dishonest Democrat Party operatives who really do know better, have styled backchannels with Russia as something nefarious, even illegal.
But 20th century history is littered with examples of backchannels. Here’s a book titled “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.” Henry Kissinger — the reigning king of backchannels — set up a backchannel with Maoist China to pave the way for Nixon’s famous visit.
For someone who grew up reading Cold War history before being legally able to drive, the spinning of backchannels into something bad is like fingernails on a chalkboard (yikes). Don’t the members of our media, who supposedly went to the best schools our country has to offer, know basic history?
Presidents have often used backchannels before taking office too. Moss, who has just written a book about backchannels with Russia during the Nixon administration, tells how the backchannels Nixon set up before he took office led to an eventual détente with the USSR.
Nixon also made moves, before taking office, to put on hold some of the policies taken by President Johnson’s administration, because he did not “want to be boxed in by any decisions that were made before [he] took office.”
This is perfectly reasonable.
Sometimes these backchannels from the bygone halcyon days were facilitated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Sometimes the CIA was left out. This might surprise the Washington, D.C. jet-set, but there is no rule that the CIA has to be the go-between, and indeed, during incoming administrations and when the intelligence community seems to have it out for you, and is selectively leaking info to paint you as a Russian stooge to boot, there are very good reasons to use private intermediaries or trusted advisors.
We have just learned that the intelligence agencies during the Obama administration, by means of a totally unverified dossier full of holes and sourced by Russians, may have literally spied on the entire Trump campaign.
And the last freakout over this method of diplomacy is instructive. Talking to Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Jared Kushner suggested they set up a backchannel. That communication was then spied upon legally under our FISA law, but then illegally leaked to the press by someone in the intelligence community. Supposedly honest and intellectual people wonder why Kushner would want to set up a backchannel without bringing in the intelligence community.
We Should Want Trump To Have Backchannels With Russia
Looking at the case at hand drives the point home even more. Erik Prince says that the meeting was not planned. But in any case, Prince having a beer with Dmitriev in Seychelles is a very weird thing for the Russia Theorists to get upset about. According to The Washington Post: “The UAE agreed to broker the meeting [between Erik Prince and the Russian] in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.”
Agree or disagree with the foreign policy approach, but even if The Washington Post’s reporting is correct, this is a totally acceptable reason to set up a backchannel. Here, the motivation to keep such a meeting secret wouldn’t just be leaks to the press, it would also be leaks to the press that would alert Iran, or other adversaries to the meeting.
And again, this entire story depends on an anonymous report of what a witness is saying. That anonymous source could be lying, never mind the fact that the alleged witness – Mr. Nadar – may or may not be telling the truth, if he is even telling anybody anything at all.
But there’s much more to this whole ordeal than that. For all its internal social and economic problems, Russia is a nuclear power. Our triad is far better, but nominally, Russia actually has more nuclear weapons than we do. Turning basic diplomacy with Russia into something nefarious for political gain does no less than endanger world peace.
Professor Moss puts it this way: “If the Trump team is indeed in informal contact with the Russians, which it denies, some observers may find comfort in the idea that diplomacy — even the back-channel variety — is underway.”
Moss is exactly right. Already, relations with Russia are at a historically low point. And American forces in Syria just had a kinetic exchange with Russian mercenaries. This might be Russia’s fault, but criminalizing talking to Russia will only make things worse.
Yet the media, too many Democrats, and even some Republicans, seem to want to criminalize the Trump administration privately talking to Russia, and demonize any hope of better relations with our nuclear peer. Either this crowd is incredibly short sighted, or they are deranged and wouldn’t mind open war.
To this crowd, news of Erik Prince — who is Betsy DeVos’s brother and highly politically active in his own right — helping Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher raise money is nefarious, because Rohrabacher is crazy enough to want to have a good relationship with Russia.
Erik Prince, under fresh scrutiny in the Russia probe over the Seychelles meeting, is hosting a fundraiser for …. none other than Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, perhaps the most Kremlin-friendly member of Congress. (via @rebeccagberg) https://t.co/tbeaYGJBdm
— Marshall Cohen (@MarshallCohen) March 8, 2018
Who among us has not forgotten planning a meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian fund manager before helping a Russian stooge run for Congress? https://t.co/CrpDFd7eYN
— Jennifer Rubin (@JRubinBlogger) March 8, 2018
This attitude threatens America. It is one thing to take a hard line toward countries that undermine America’s interests. It is another thing entirely to criminalize basic diplomacy with a nuclear armed power. Come this election-cycle, voters, both Republican and Democrat, should note the difference.