This story is still developing. So we need to carefully distinguish what we can say for sure with what is still unverified. Multiple news organizations are surely pursuing the story, which means we’ll be learning more in the coming days.
On Saturday, Mark Townsend and Julian Borger of the Observer broke this news:
Aides to Donald Trump, the US president, hired an Israeli private intelligence agency to orchestrate a “dirty ops” campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the Observer can reveal.People in the Trump camp contacted private investigators in May last year to “get dirt” on Ben Rhodes, who had been one of Barack Obama’s top national security advisers, and Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to Obama, as part of an elaborate attempt to discredit the deal.
The Observer article refers to “aides to Donald Trump” but does not elaborate. That could mean administration officials, or it could mean people outside the administration, in his campaign organization or associated with him in some other way. In any case, on Sunday, Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker published an article providing more detail. He began by reporting that Ann Norris, a former State Department official and Rhodes’ wife, was approached by a woman claiming to work for a British film company who wanted Norris to consult on a documentary about geopolitical crises. Kahl’s wife was also approached, by a woman claiming to work for “Reuben Capital Partners,” who wanted to talk with her about her daughter’s school. Both women found it suspicious, and declined the meetings.
According to documents Farrow saw, this was part of an effort by Black Cube, the intelligence firm that film producer Harvey Weinstein employed to use covert tactics to dig up dirt on the women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment. And as foreign policy reporter Laura Rozen pointed out, when Black Cube approached actress Rose McGowan in an attempt to acquire information on her that could be used against her in Weinstein’s defense, the agent doing the approach claimed to be from “Reuben Capital Partners.” Farrow goes on:
The documents show that Black Cube compiled detailed background profiles of several individuals, including Rhodes and Kahl, that featured their addresses, information on their family members, and even the makes of their cars. Black Cube agents were instructed to try to find damaging information about them, including unsubstantiated claims that Rhodes and Kahl had worked closely with Iran lobbyists and were personally enriched through their policy work on Iran (they denied those claims); rumors that Rhodes was one of the Obama staffers responsible for “unmasking” Trump transition officials who were named in intelligence documents (Rhodes denied the claim); and an allegation that one of the individuals targeted by the campaign had an affair.
Black Cube denies the story. But let’s pause to consider just how utterly mad this is. The president and some (though not all) of his aides want to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. So someone decided the best way to go about it was to dig up dirt on former Obama administration officials involved in the negotiations? And not just by doing some research, but with a covert operation aimed at their families? How is that supposed to help? Is Trump going to announce he’s pulling out of the deal, then say “I had to do this because one of the people who negotiated it had an affair”? Who was stupid enough to authorize this?
And that’s what we don’t know. While the Observer refers to “aides to Donald Trump,” Farrow reports that “one of the sources familiar with the effort [said] that it was, in fact, part of Black Cube’s work for a private-sector client pursuing commercial interests related to sanctions on Iran.” So it is possible that this all happened without the involvement of anyone in the White House.
But there is a curious aspect to this: the selections of Rhodes and Kahl as targets of this operation. Rhodes’ title was “deputy national security adviser for strategic communications,” meaning he was part policy adviser and part speechwriter. He was certainly among the key White House advisers on the Iran agreement, but not the most senior one. Kahl was national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden — again, a senior official, but not the most senior.
As Kahl himself has pointed out on Twitter, the Black Cube effort coincided with a period in which White House officials were pushing to conservative media that Rhodes and Kahl were leaking information to reporters, in a broad effort to undermine the Trump administration on foreign policy. He also points to this Washington Free Beacon article from June 26, 2017, and this interview Sebastian Gorka gave to CNN nearly two weeks earlier — both of which mention Rhodes and Kahl by name. During this Fox News interview on May 17, 2017, Gorka referred to “the Ben Rhodes/Colin Kahl nexus,” which he claimed was leaking information to the press about Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders, even though the two had left office four months before.
So it is possible someone hired Black Cube without anyone in the White House knowing, and that the firm just happened to have been directed to aim its efforts at Rhodes and Kahl, with whom people in the White House were apparently obsessed. Maybe someone saw Gorka ranting about them on TV and decided to hire an intelligence firm to dig up dirt on them.
We should note that what Black Cube did isn’t necessarily illegal, but it is still unbelievably inappropriate. Policy differences are one thing, but we’re talking about trying to justify a current administration policy by mounting an intelligence operation aimed at former administration officials and their families.
So this is the question that has to be answered: Who ordered this? And further, who paid for it and who knew about it? If anyone in the White House is involved, we just got ourselves yet another big Trump administration scandal.