Updated: Jul 13, 2019
My FBI partner was the most tenacious investigator I ever worked with. A former cop, he judged the abilities of other investigators by their skill, caring little for what badge they carried or what department they worked for.
He approached the work of being an FBI kidnapping investigator with one mantra. This mantra was that tunnel vision can cost lives. It can lead you to value irrelevant information and disregard relevant information. In a kidnapping investigation -- where lives are at stake – tunnel vision is a really, really bad thing.
The phenomena is everywhere. When a journalist gets a bad case of it, we often call it confirmation bias. So, it was with John Solomon and the conclusions he drew from his recent interview with Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch, Putin confidante, and self-described international power broker (Russian oligarch's story could spell trouble for Team Mueller, The Hill, 07/02/19).
The piece presents a series of Solomon conclusions based on a series of Deripaska claims that confirm a bias Solomon already has or that he wants his readers to adopt. The bias is that there was something materially wrong with the special counsel’s investigation, either regarding its predication, its tactics, or its judgment. Consequently, this is the lens through which Solomon views Deripaska’s “revelations.”
Interestingly, Solomon treats Deripaska's information about his past dealings with the FBI in much the same way he believes the FBI treated information from Christopher Steele.
That is, with tunnel vision.
This is particularly so with Solomon’s overall implication that the special counsel should have simply accepted Deripaska’s opinion that the Russian government was not using Manafort to pass information to the Trump campaign. Moreover, by not reporting this opinion to Manafort, Solomon inaccurately claimed that the special counsel’s case against Manafort is somehow in jeopardy. (Not true – addressed below.)
As for the other Deripaska claims, each is likely infused with some aspect of truth. However, unlike in the two-dimensional world of pundits, in the three-dimensional world of geo-politics, the truth is always more complicated and nuanced in a way that few opinion writers or bloggers (myself included) can ever convey. And, if a pundit is on a mission to support his or her particular view of the world, then why bother trying?
Solomon certainly did not.
The result is confirmation bias, either intentionally or with quite a bit of naivety. This bias gives the sense that somehow Deripaska’s statements have a bearing on the special counsel's investigation when, in fact, they do not.
Here are Deripaska's claims and a real-world, experience-based analysis as to why none of these claims, even if true, are particularly relevant to the validity of the special counsel’s investigation, as Solomon implied:
Claim 1: In approximately 2009 through 2011, at the request of Andrew McCabe and the FBI, Deripaska spent $20 million to try and bring likely-abducted former FBI agent Bob Levinson home from Iran.
Perhaps this is true (although the $20M sum is likely exaggerated). Let's dispel the notion, however, that there would have been anything wrong with such an alliance or that somehow the information Deripaska provided to Mueller about Manafort carries more weight as a result.
Throughout my career, I found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that there are circumstances in which enforcing the law is the wrong thing to do. I’m not referring to the public perception, valid or not, that some people are unfairly treated as “above the law.” I’m referring to the rare occasion when enforcing the law must take a back seat to other ethical considerations.
As the FBI’s representative in Ukraine in 2007 — a nation long the object of a tug-of-war between the United States and Russia — I once had to derail the interview of a Ukrainian oligarch who was the subject of an FBI money-laundering investigation. I did this because he was aligned with State Department policy goals and the interview was unlikely to produce anything other than antipathy toward the United States.
I made a choice between two competing moralities: enforcing the law, or furthering U.S. interests at the expense of a foreign adversary. If Deripaska's claim is true, McCabe likely made a similar choice to try and persuade the State Department to overlook visa restrictions in exchange for bringing Bob Levinson home to his family.
As President Trump often preaches, it is wise to listen to anyone who may want to make a deal. It doesn’t mean you have to take the deal, but it expands your options.
The FBI subscribes to the same philosophy.
Deripaska was just another Russian oligarch trying to make a deal. What he did in 2009 and what he said in 2016 have no bearing on each other, aside from that he was likely trying to make a similar deal for a visa.
Claim 2: Deripaska came very close to a deal with Iranian captors to secure Levinson's release but was told by FBI handlers that the deal was scuttled at Hillary's Clinton's State Department.
There could be a scrap of truth to this. The State Department's modus operandi is often inexplicable. If this was the case, however, it was likely an over-simplification.
In the real world, there would have been a million moving parts, including the use of other diplomatic channels, such as the US interests section of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. If Bob Levinson could have been brought home alive, it would have happened without Deripaska. Deripaska in the role of "best diplomatic option" occurs in Hollywood movie plots, not real-life international relations.
Again, this has no bearing on the validity or relevance of Deripaska’s Manafort opinion or the special counsel's investigation.
Claim 3: Deripaska claimed Steele invited him to a September 2015 meeting with Justice Department officials under the guise that they might help him with a visa to visit the U.S., which was actually for the purpose of recruiting him.
This is how it is often done. If it's true, it's not much different than McCabe's alleged 2009 attempt. Pretty much the way of the world. If Deripaska was willing to provide information about the Putin government, we would want him to have the power to travel freely to the United States where we could more easily debrief him. It’s a cost/benefit analysis.
Conclusion 1: Solomon’s piece would be better titled, “Russian oligarch's story CANNOT spell trouble for Team Mueller.” His legal theory that Mueller was obligated to disclose, as Brady material, Deripaska's opinion that the Russian government was not colluding with Manafort to affect the 2016 election falls short of the legal requirement to do so.
Brady requires the provision of exculpatory information relevant to the crimes Manafort committed. Manafort was charged with tax and lobbying violations, which did not pertain to Russia's interference in the election. (As an ethical matter, I would have urged the prosecutor to disclose it. But it’s the prosecutor’s call and the law does not require it.)
Conclusion 2: Deripaska's tale has the potential to raise questions about a conflict-of-interest, since "Mueller's FBI" received a gift in the form of a privately-funded rescue mission from someone who is now a witness in his investigation.
"Mueller's FBI" refers to the time period in which Mueller was FBI director during which Deripaska and McCabe were allegedly working together.
This does not even come close to a conflict-of-interest.
It is also worth noting that inasmuch as Solomon is the first to raise the “question” of a conflict, his conclusion took on the context of self-fulfilling prophecy as opposed to honest analysis.
Conclusion 3: Deripaska said that Russia did not conspire with Manafort to affect the 2016 presidential election because if it had, he would have known about it.
Okay...put yourself in the FBI's shoes for a moment. You are on the special counsel's team trying to determine to what extent a foreign adversary influenced the 2016 presidential election and whether that adversary conspired with Americans to do so. Are you going to take Deripaska's word for it or are you going to examine the totality of the intelligence you've collected, including Deripaska's information, and then move forward to determine the truth, whatever that truth may be?
Tunnel vision everywhere
Tunnel vision and confirmation bias occur when an investigator or journalist focuses on proving an investigative theory to the detriment of other viable theories before collecting all the available evidence or intelligence.
There are indications the FBI had a case of tunnel vision in the run-up to the 2016 election. The forthcoming Inspector General's report on the topic should be the definitive authority on this question.
Perhaps it did.
But at this particular moment – even knowing Mueller concluded there was no conspiracy involving the Trump campaign to defraud an American election – and without knowing much else, Christopher Steele's dossier is no more or less valuable to an outside observer like Solomon (or me for that matter) than the statements of the Oleg Deripaska's of the world.
But what about the motivation of the information-provider you ask?
Everyone providing information or intelligence to a law enforcement authority has a motive. (To his credit, Solomon does not gloss over Deripaska's motive of a continuing desire for a US visa.)
However, while a witness's motive is relevant in evaluating whether the information he or she provided is likely to be true, when determining whether something may be true, motives are just one variable evaluated and weighed against other variables.
Anything short of this approach, as my former partner consistently brought to bear, is tunnel vision.
James S. Davidson was an FBI special agent for 23 years. He investigated major crimes in Texas and California and served in Ukraine, Israel, and Washington, D.C. He is now president of Protect the FBI, a non-partisan organization whose mission is to safeguard the FBI from the partisan politics of both political parties. Twitter: @protectthefbi