Interview: The "Sleuth's Corner"
When traditional media fumbled the Russiagate story, a loose confederation of investigators filled in gaps, repeatedly breaking news without credit. Meet "The Corner"
The first thing the members of the “Sleuth’s Corner” (colloquially, “the Corner”) want you to know is they’re not zealots, at least not in the way you think.
“It’s not political, that’s the most important thing,” says Hans Mahncke, one of a handful of Corner members to go by his real name on Twitter. “It’s not even a group in a way, it’s totally organic… I’ve never spoken politics to any of these other guys.”
“These other guys” are a loose confederation of internet investigators who, roughly speaking, came together over the Russiagate story. They’re mainly known by Twitter handles: Walkafyre, TECHNO FOG, @RyanM58699717, Stephen McIntyre (a.k.a. @climateaudit), FOOL NELSON, and @Hmmm57474203. Their real names are mostly all out there — you can find many in Barry Meier’s Spooked, for instance — but for simplicity’s sake I’m using their Twitter identities here.
Despite only being mentioned as a group in passing in a few traditional press treatments (a multi-page section in Meier’s book is the closest thing to a full profile), the Corner has broken numerous major stories in the Trump era, specializing in putting names to unnamed figures in news stories. Among others, they identified Igor Danchenko, the primary source of the infamous “Steele Dossier,” as well as Eric Ciaramella, the alleged “whistleblower” in the Ukrainegate case, and Rodney Joffe, also known as “Tech Executive-1” in Special Counsel John Durham’s indictment of former Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann.
In return, they’ve been denounced as anti-vaxxers, QAnon adherents, Trump operatives, conspiracy theorists, and Russian spies, and that’s just for starters. When @Hmmm57474203, the blogger who outed Brookings fellow Danchenko as Steele’s primary sub-source, confronted New York Times national security reporter Charlie Savage on Twitter, Savage* answered with a reply that suggested “Hmmm” was a foreign plant:
Not that it matters, but these caricatured descriptions seem way off. There are a few Trump supporters in the Corner, for sure, and some have views that may fall out of the mainstream, but the notion that they’ve been motivated to “help Trump” would be laughable to at least some of the members. By geography, age, attitude, and profession, they’re an eclectic group, featuring several lawyers mixed in with a bank officer, a former mining executive, and a postgraduate student, and their political orientation is not only varied, but a poor fit for the blunt descriptor “right wing.”
They seem primarily to be skeptics and anti-authoritarians with a deep distrust of intelligence agencies. It probably is true that the group rarely or never discusses politics in the traditional left-right sense, and “Fool’s” account of how he got involved is typical.
“I like Trump, but I didn’t even register to vote that year,” he laughs, referring to 2016. “But then, once this whole thing, when they tried to start linking Trump to Russia, I thought, ‘Nah, you’re not going to do that.’”
“I’ve never been to a political rally,” adds Mahncke, who says: “There’s certainly more of a Trump tendency than an anti-Trump tendency, but there are also parallels with the old left, the way the left used to be, the left that likes Julian Assange, that kind of left. That, I think, is a commonality. I think everyone [in the group] is a huge Assange fan.”
The characteristic that seems to bind them more than any other is they’re all at least fascinated, and in some cases obsessed, with Russiagate. They have critics who think they’re crazy, conspiratorial, unhinged, abrasive, and beholden to someone or some group of someones, but mainly they seem motivated to fill in the gaps of an all-time complex story with innumerable plot elements still not known to the public. There’s no question that they came up with names like Danchenko and Joffe faster than mainstream counterparts (if the latter were even looking), and that their strategies are clever, if obsessive. Their idea of a fun project is Walkafyre making a comprehensive list of all the people interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and determining both their identities and the order in which they were interviewed from publicly released FBI interview reports (“302s”) and, among other things, the sudden and conspicuous mention of certain names in news stories.
“Media stories around that time, everyone talks about Mueller didn’t leak — but there were leaks all the time,” says Ryan. “You start seeing that this interview happened, and two days later, there’s a news article about something that confirmed that this is who was being interviewed.”
“The identifications of the 302s become a fabulous database that can be quantified and used to see what Mueller was actually doing,” says McIntyre.
Russiagate was unique in the sense that a huge portion of the “story” was always its arc as a media phenomenon. Once the idea that Russia and the Trump campaign were in an actual espionage conspiracy as described in the Steele dossier fell apart — after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation ended with no indictments, and especially after Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a damning report on the FBI’s bent pursuit of FISA warrants in the case — Russiagate really became a story about a media story. How was it leaked? Who was responsible for ginning up a bogus national hysteria? How did half-baked spy tales like the pee tape become serious topics discussed in hushed tones on our most respected news programs?
These conspiracy tales for years were advanced primarily by “reputable” politicians and professional media figures, thrusting skeptics like the members of The Corner in roles as debunkers of mainstream reports. “We spend probably half of our time fighting people like these stenographers over at the New York Times,” says Mahncke, “because every time they put out a piece, it’s a narrative, it’s not the truth.”
One of many examples was the taken-seriously hypothesis that Donald Trump’s “Russia, if you’re listening” outburst served as the predicate for the opening of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, because Trump’s comments inspired the Australian government to tip off the Americans about a conversation their diplomat Alexander Downer had with George Papadopoulos.
That story was pushed by former FBI agent Peter Strzok in an interview with CBS correspondent David Martin, who ran a clip of Trump’s infamous statement before saying, “Those Australian diplomats heard that, and contacted the FBI.”
Martin tweeted something similar after airing the story, at which point Mahncke pointed out that Strzok’s story had to be bogus, and Martin should have known as much. Martin has since deleted the tweet:
The group has made mistakes — nowhere near on the scale of the mainstream sources like the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Guardian, CNN, and MSNBC that took the Steele material seriously for years, but still they’ve made them. Among other things, critics note they publicly suggested former KGB officer Yuri Shvets as Steele’s primary source before “Hmmm” discovered Danchenko. Overall, the fact that they’re on the skeptical side of a story most of the commercial press spent years panting for (and still does) has turned them into villains to many traditionalists.
On the flip side, throughout most of the Russiagate period, corporate outlets used both paid researchers like Glenn Simpson and “independent researchers” like Guinness-length tweeter Seth Abramson and Louise “British Invasion” Mensch as end-arounds to traditional fact-checking rules, often inviting them on to air unproven hypotheticals (Did Vladimir Putin personally dictate a Donald Trump Jr. media statement? Did Trump officials meet Russian spies in Prague?). This was an outgrowth of a naughty habit begun decades before in which journalists got otherwise unprintable stories in front of readers by affecting to “report the controversy” of internet theories, a key early example being a front page New York Times report about the “frenzied speculation” that George W. Bush used a transmitter during a debate with John Kerry in 2004.
That story previewed Russiagate in the sense that the Times got a “reputable” political figure, Terry McAuliffe, to legitimize the transmitter theory by commenting on it, saying “If [Bush] had an earpiece on during that debate and those are the best answers that he could do, then he should be impeached.” This means of laundering unsourced theories would be used by the likes of Adam Schiff and Mark Warner repeatedly in the Trump years.
The Corner’s value hasn’t been in unproven theories but in filling in conspicuous blanks in coverage. Politics aside, they should be a template for a type of crowdsourced journalistic operation that in an ideal world would act in partnership with traditional investigative reporters, combining an appetite for records searches, the advantage of sheer person-hours, patience to follow through with Freedom of Information requests, and a little old-school door-knocking technique to produce elusive answers. Many of their biggest “scoops” came via exhaustive document review of the type that’s familiar to anyone who’s lived the 100-hour-work-week life as a young associate. The legal experience shows up in other areas, too.
“I’m not an appellate lawyer. I’m a lawyer that kind of grinds,” says Techno. “I think everybody’s lying to me. I think my clients are lying to me. It happens, you know? So you don’t trust anybody. So when they’re saying [Konstantin] Kilimnik is a Russian agent, you think, wait, let me look at that.”
Journalists, by nature always under time pressure to produce content, have a limited ability to do this kind of work, and even the organizations that can afford to hire people for this purpose mostly don’t do much of it. True, the fastest way to uncovering secrets remains the traditional method of generating sources who disclose the damning thing or things, but in the internet age the quantitative approach used by groups like the Corner can act as a short-cut to identifying gettable information that’s already out there in the public record.
In theory, traditional reporters could partner up with such groups, working to add layers of confirmation to leads and using their input as a warning system, to help avoid contradictions and errors. Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller and Free Beacon was one of the few who made efforts in this direction with the Corner.
“I think the point that we’re here and can answer a lot of these questions because we’re so in the weeds, is right,” says Mahncke.
As an example: if line journalists had the same familiarity with the documents in this story that this group does, numerous myths would have been exploded much earlier. An example is the crucial annex to a document that added legitimacy to years of crazy media stories — the Intelligence Community Assessment of December 30, 2016, used by outgoing President Obama to justify sanctions against Russia — cited on a portion of Steele’s reports we knew at least as early as the Horowitz report relied on a made-up source who never communicated with Steele in any way, a former chief of a small organization called the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, Sergei Millian.
By identifying Danchenko, and reaching out to Millian, a naturalized American from Belarus — see the interview below — the group helped flesh out the absurdity of the original conspiracy tale. This intelligence “annex” sourced to no one included the key assertions that Russia had cultivated Trump for years, had fed him intelligence on Hillary Clinton, and agreed to use Wikileaks in exchange for policy concessions on NATO and Ukraine:
This passage, a fake on the order of the yellowcake fiasco, remains mostly unexplored in the traditional press, as the story of its origin is seen as “right wing” propaganda, despite the fact that the confirmation mainly came from people like Inspector General Horowitz. It’s too bad for groups like the Corner, because for all the criticism they’ve taken, some of their puzzle-solving on matters like this has been really clever and worth putting to paper. To that end, I talked to “The Corner” members about how they got together, identified Danchenko, and unpacked some other conundrums, while also asking what they think about the regular press and whether or not they could cooperate with groups like theirs:
Matt Taibbi: How did you all get together?
McIntyre (a.k.a. @climateaudit): I would say our group in the sense of Fool Nelson, Walkafyre, Hans, and I started a private DM line after the release of the Horowitz Report. And the project that we set for ourselves following the Horowitz Report was identifying Steele’s primary sub-source.
At that point it seemed to us to be a scandal that the sub-source was still unknown. There didn’t seem to be any good reason for it. We were suspicious of the narrative that protecting sources and methods was doing anything other than protecting embarrassment. And what I would say Fool and Walkafyre and Hans and I myself had all noticed more or less independently is that the Horowitz Report indicated that the primary sub-source lived near DC, that he wasn’t Russian-based, and that the whole idea that he was at some risk of being knocked off by Putin was a deception.
Now at that first pass, we weren’t able to figure out who he was, but we were able to get a pretty good profile that he was some sort of expat that was living in Washington, DC, he was familiar with think-tank culture. And so we formed the group, we coalesced, and now each of us had written somewhat different things on it at that time.
MT: What were some of the early hints?
Walkafyre: There was actually a section that Horowitz quoted at some other point in the report that didn’t redact a certain line about him being “Russian-based…” And then in a few other places in the report he quotes basically the same line, but that one section that says “Russian-based” was redacted. So, looking through it, I said, “Wait a minute. I think this is the same quote,” and plugging that in, based on the spacing and everything of the font, it was pretty clear that it was the same line. It was a section where one of the agents was saying, “Hey, we don’t think he’s Russian based,” but that part was redacted in the report.
Mahncke: What’s the significance of that? Well, [FBI attorney Kevin] Clinesmith, the only one who’s so far been convicted of anything, he was the one who lied about the Russian-based stuff. That’s why it’s in there. It says that the analyst told the lawyer, the lawyer being Clinesmith, “Hey, you can’t have Russia-based in here because the guy’s not Russia-based.”
McIntyre: The other big thing that came out of the Horowitz Report that was relevant to our truth pertaining to [Russian Chamber of Commerce Chief] Sergei Millian. And this plays a part later when Danchenko’s identified, that in one of the Horowitz passages, there’s an admission that the primary sub-source never met Person-1.
When we saw that, that was something we talked about a lot, and we were in touch with Millian by that point. What that meant was that in the Steele dossier where there had been in four different reports, which purported to rely on information from “Person-1,” that this was impossible. Danchenko tried to cover it up. In the Horowitz Report they said that Danchenko had told the FBI that he had received an anonymous phone call for 10 to 15 minutes.
So at that point this whole Intel Assessment now is based on an anonymous phone call for 10 to 15 minutes, and you don’t even know whether that was Millian or not. And, even if that phone call existed, the other three attributions to Millian are fake. So those are the things that we knew before we knew who Danchenko was.
MT: What were the next steps? The ominous New York Times description says, “The F.B.I. Pledged to Keep a Source Anonymous. Trump Allies Aided His Unmasking.”
McIntyre: Miraculously, in July 2020, a lightly redacted version of the Danchenko interview was released by Lindsey Graham. That was right in the wheelhouse for people like Walkafyre and Fool. As it turned out, the person who spotted Danchenko was our friend “Hmmm.” But it came out on a Friday, so we were all pretty excited except for the fact that on the Saturday Hans was with his family out camping and Fool was on the lake, on the Ozarks drinking.
Fool: Yeah. For my birthday. I had all weekend.
McIntyre: Walkafyre, and I were kind of holding the fort. We followed some wrong leads. Some of the things that we had on the Saturday were just elementary stuff, like figuring out that the guy was from Russia. He had four letters in his first name, nine letters in his last name. One of the benefits was that the FBI used a Courier font, which made character counting elementary.
MT: How did Hmmm come in?
Hmmm: When the FBI interview was released, I just happened to be following something else I was digging into, and ended up finding one of these guys. I mean, the whole story, I put on that little mini blog that I made when I found Danchenko. The short version: there’s a guy out there who worked for [Steele’s firm] Orbis, and one of his Twitter followers — and they followed each other — was the guy. And, none of it, obviously, would’ve mattered if all of those parameters weren’t already discussed on Twitter, where the size of the name and all of that had been discussed.
So, I started digging in and looking more. And, the key was I found Danchenko’s resume, and it matched perfectly, everything that was in that FBI interview. And, I knew that was the guy. Unfortunately, nobody else was awake at that point, so I had nobody to just pass this along and go private with it. So, I wanted to consolidate that finding, throw it out there in a way that other people could validate it.
McIntyre: Prior to the Danchenko interview being published, we had thought, largely from The New York Times reporting, that the primary sub-source must be a Soviet-era intelligence officer that was expat in the US. We couldn’t quite get anybody to fit, but when we saw the interview, it was very clear that the guy was in his thirties, just from the biography.
What I perceive Hmmm to have done, is look at a blog article by Jacob Appelbaum which had collected a set of social circle connections that included Glenn Simpson… and identified various young associates of Christopher Steele. Kieren Porter was one of them, Sam Stainer was another, and he had pictures of them and showed them cavorting around.
He then looked at the social media connections of Kieren Porter, looked for Russian names, and “four by nine” names. And, it was 600, 700, a thousand people to go through. This is something that is very characteristic of the work that the group’s done, is that we’re not afraid of a thousand names to go through. So, from parsing that list, he found Igor Danchenko. And then, it matched and he quickly found other private things.
MT: Did you do anything else to confirm the story?
Mahncke: But that’s one point I just wanted to make earlier — we didn’t just put Igor Danchenko on Twitter. The media always accuses these Twitter people of not following the proper procedures and you don’t verify.
After the Danchenko interview was released, we emailed Sergei Millian. Some of us had gotten a bit friendly with him. We said, “Hey, Sergei, we’ve got a four plus nine here.” Danchenko had told the FBI, “I sent this guy two emails in July and August.” Okay, so we said, “Sergei, could you please go through all emails from that period, if you still have them, and find a four plus nine?” Luckily, within like 12 hours Hmmm had come up with a name.
So at that point we re-contacted Sergei and said, “Hey, by the way, Sergei, we’ve got an update. You don’t need to look for a four-plus-nine, just look for a Danchenko. Do you have a Danchenko?” And that’s when he said, “Yeah, I’ve got two emails.” And he didn’t know that number was proof.
There’s maybe an ancillary point there. Would he have given those emails to someone from the New York Times, which had already spent four years smearing him? Probably not.
Fool: After that, we were scraping all the Facebook profiles and stuff like that. And then, there was just this one picture of Igor, he’s dressed in armor, or something like that. And then, all these people were liking the posts on there, so I just took a screenshot of that moved on. And then, because we filled in the redactions Walkafyre-style, where we had the first and last name, I could read through which source gave which information. You could basically figure out each of the sub-sources.
MT: In retrospect, what allowed Danchenko’s name to stay secret for as long as it did?
Mahncke: I think an important part of this is that probably the reason we didn’t find Danchenko earlier — because we had put in some effort, as we had even narrowed down where he lived, not only DC, but we said Northern Virginia. And we had a couple of important data points to try to figure this out. So the reason we didn’t, and we couldn’t have, is actually because we didn’t believe that the FBI was so fucking corrupt…
How could you have this guy, who knows nothing about anything, he’s just a Brookings guy just bouncing around in DC, be the centerpiece of the Russia collusion proof, the guy who gave the evidence that Trump was colluding, Trump is being recruited for years. All the shit in the Dossier! So we assumed, and I think fairly so, that at least, at least, the person must have some credibility, be a former KGB agent or a more senior person, or something! It just never occurred to us to look for this junior guy in his thirties. That was the snag. And the snag only exists because we didn’t realize how completely corrupt they were. Or are, because they knew that as soon as they found them as well.
MT: Do you think this could be a template for a new kind of journalism?
Ryan: I hope not.
MT: That’s a funny answer.
Ryan: It’s kind of like what we’ve been talking about, we’re not supposed to be the ones that do this at all. It’s not supposed to be crowdsourced and for everything that we’ve done right, we haven’t been perfect. And people that have training and resources behind them would do a far better job. And I think they could probably present this, they could have had this years ago. And that’s a really tragic takeaway that we have.
McIntyre: In fairness to journalists, and I ran into this in the climate area — if a journalist is trying to evaluate a climate paper, they don’t have time to dig into the data. They’ve got to produce a story a day. The economic model of conventional media has been completely screwed over by Google and Facebook, and the transfer of advertising money away from traditional media to big tech. So most newspapers are struggling to survive. So I don’t fault reporters for not being able to dig into material the way we have.
Mahncke: It should be the traditional media in some form, working with people like us… I think the crowdsourcing is important for the reason Steven mentioned. And so some of the stuff we do is useful to them, because they don’t have the time to dig into these things and so on. Perfect, right? But we spend probably half of our time fighting people like these stenographers over at the New York Times, Charlie Savage and all those people, because every time they put out a piece, it’s a narrative, it’s not the truth.
They spin it. And I have to say, they’re very, very good writers... Just from a command of English language point of view, they’re fantastic. And they could craft it, but then I read it and I get so angry. Then we have to basically go and disprove what the Washington Post wrote…
It would be much better if everyone was just on the same side and that side is the truth. You’ve got people on the internet who dig into things, go deep into the weeds. And then you got these journalists who can write it up and just tell the story. You don’t all have to pull in the same direction. But directionally, it should be kind of the truth.