Thanks to Leaked Trump Dossier, ‘Kompromat’ Culture Has Infected America

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Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, on December 23. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

For all the tumult Russian President Vladimir Putin and his band of hackers, blackmailers and security goons have created within the U.S. political world, both during the 2016 presidential election and now in its aftermath, he can claim one unequivocal success, one that probably delights him to no end: He has taken Russia’s kompromat culture and mainlined it into the U.S. political and media bloodstream.

Related: Donald Trump dismisses Russia reports as ‘fake news’ during bizarre press conference

Kompromat means compromising information, and it is a term of art that came to prominence in Moscow in the 1990s, the chaotic period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Specifically, kompromat was used to smear or damage one’s enemies, whether they were commercial or political. The information often originated in what can be described as the intelligence community—or, in 1990s Russia, from former members of that community.

Rule No. 1 in wielding kompromat as a weapon: It mattered little if the information was true. Veracity was—and remains, since kompromat is alive and well in Russia today—entirely a secondary matter. Trying to prove or disprove whether a piece of kompromat is actually true is usually an exercise in futility.

Believe me, I know. As a bureau chief for this magazine for nearly five years in the second half of the ’90s, I was present for the apex of the kompromat era. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did its security agencies, the KGB and the GRU (the military intelligence agency) in particular. By 1998, when Russia defaulted on its debt and devalued its currency, the state was effectively bankrupt. Anyone who stayed on at either the domestic or foreign security services was looked on as a chump by former colleagues.

Why? Because it was the era of the oligarch. Rapacious businessmen like the late Boris Berezovsky were privatizing formerly state-owned assets, gaining control of hugely valuable entities for next to nothing. There were very few rules in those days, except those enforced at the barrel of a gun. Businessmen needed muscle, and they needed intelligence—information that they could use to protect themselves and to attack or intimidate their enemies in government or in business. They raided the former Soviet Union’s formidable security services, stripping the cupboard bare.

I got to know several of these guys in that anarchic era, and one, a former KGB agent I’ll call Sergei, was telling the truth when he told me, “Anyone who stays in the government these days does so for only one reason: They’re incompetent or stupid or both. If they’re still in, it means no one would hire them.”

Russia’s newly free press for the most part loved trafficking in kompromat. In less than a decade, the country’s media had gone from an era of total state control, during which journalists could print nothing except what the state wanted printed, to what you could call the “too good to check” era, when scandalous rumors and innuendo about powerful businessmen or government officials would float around and often find a home in print somewhere.

The foreign press also would often peddle this stuff. You would occasionally try to run some stuff down, and it would prove fruitless and you’d just quickly move on. Kompromat was usually a bunch of half-truths and BS. (And there was so much happening in that era that you could report responsibly that chasing rumors down rabbit holes wasn’t worth it.)  

But sometimes kompromat was (and is) true. In the late 1990s, we were approached by a former spook who said he had damaging information about a powerful politician in Boris Yeltsin’s government. He said there were multiple videos of the politician doing things that he shouldn’t have at the dacha of an oligarch whom he was supposed to be regulating. OK, we said, we need to see that video.

A few days later, the guy gets back to us and says, OK. He says he wants to meet at a strip joint in the basement of the Metropol Hotel, near the Kremlin. (Where else in a case like this?) So late that night I met the source, and he slipped me a videocassette.

The next morning, I shoved it into the video player in the bureau, and, sure enough, there’s the rising-star politician at what appears to be a big-time oligarch’s dacha, in a swimming pool with about half a dozen stunning women, all of whom were not clothed. Soon enough, he starts to…well, use your imagination. There was no way it could have been faked. It was the real deal.

Even under these circumstances, we ended up not writing a story, in part because we could not verify whether the dacha in question was actually owned by the oligarch in question, or whether he just happened to be at the party. The editors argued that, given the scandals of the era, this was relatively small beer. And they had a point: Let’s see, a prominent Russian politician cavorting at a dacha with Russian supermodel wannabes? Get me to my fainting couch!

Which brings us to the latest contretemps, about what the president-elect did or didn’t do in the Ritz-Carlton hotel overlooking the Kremlin. This case is pure kompromat: lurid details, unsourced and all but unverifiable, and offered up by a former Moscow-based intelligence operative. (This one was British, but someone who was plainly fed stuff by Russian counterparts, though toward what end is entirely unclear. Doesn’t it rather disrupt the Democratic/media narrative that the Russians were and are trying to help their Manchurian candidate?)

No matter. Thanks to BuzzFeed, CNN and the mainstream media’s Trump derangement syndrome—and with an assist from the U.S.’s own intelligence service (more on this momentarily)—we’re all now swimming in the kompromat sewer. As David Satter, an old friend who remains the only foreign correspondent Putin has thrown out of Russia in the post-Cold War era, wrote recently, “U.S. society is slipping into a quagmire of Russian disinformation in which the Putin regime will find it very easy to create reality and destroy facts.”

That, indeed, is what kompromat campaigns are all about. And by appending a two-page summary of the Ritz-Carlton dossier to a report about Russian hacking given to both Trump and President Barack Obama, the outgoing director of national intelligence, James Clapper, effectively aided and abetted the enemy: That addendum allowed all “responsible” news organizations to report on the dossier in the context of the hacking report. Trump was understandably furious, and Clapper denied that any intelligence agency leaked the news about the two-page summary.

This entire episode, in other words, is a debacle for all concerned. And in this media age—where clicks and ratings are pretty much everything—it’s not at all clear that we’ll ever get out of this sewer. This Trump dossier may well mark the point of no return. And Vladimir Putin, seeing how U.S. elites are at each other’s throats over this, will continue, as Satter writes, to stir the pot even more vigorously.