The Curious Case Of Stefan Halper, Longtime ‘Zelig’ Of American Scandals Who ‘Crossfired’ Trump

In the late summer of 2016 Stefan A. Halper met with at least three of Donald Trump’s associates in England and the United States, bragging about his friendship with Russian spies who “can be very helpful to us at this time.”

As they listened to his tales of foreign intrigue and promises of illegal foreign help, what George Papadopoulos, Carter Page and Sam Clovis did not know was that Halper was not who he said he was. He was, indeed, a spy, but his handler was not the Kremlin – it was the FBI. Armed with leading questions and on at least two occasions a hidden tape recorder, Halper had been tasked by the bureau with finding dirt on the Trump campaign.

Halper’s undercover operation, which was documented in a report by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, would prove largely a bust. Transcripts between Halper and Trump campaign officials would show that  none of them took the bait, or appeared to otherwise be soliciting Russia’s help in the 2016 presidential campaign

Even now, it might seem odd that the FBI made Halper, then a septuagenarian Cambridge University professor, a linchpin of its top-secret counterintelligence probe codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane.” But a closer look at Halper’s life and work makes that decision seem inevitable. Stefan Halper is the Zelig of modern American political scandal – a chameleon-like, unusually ubiquitous figure who keeps appearing when mischief is afoot.

A Wide Resume, and Questions About It

The former son-in-law of a top CIA official, Halper cut his teeth in the Nixon White House during Watergate. The New York Times identified him as the Reagan campaign’s point man in an alleged effort to spy on President Jimmy Carter, and he was later chairman of a bank that helped provide money to surreptitiously fund Nicaragua’s pro-American contra rebels during the 1980s. In the run-up to his subterfuge in the Trump-Russia caper, Halper was paid more than $1 million by a Pentagon office that produced work deemed of such little value that Sen. Charles Grassley recently identified it as a prime example of the government’s “systemic failure to manage and oversee” spending.

Given the secret nature of his work, it is not surprising that Halper’s exact role in these scandals is still debated by insiders and historians. An examination of long-ignored records by RealClearInvestigations, however, shows that Halper has added to the mystery by appearing to consistently misrepresent his background and experience on resumes. There is, for example, no public evidence for his claim, on a resume he submitted to the Ford White House, that he was class president at Stanford University in 1967, or a Fulbright scholar. Nor is there any for the claim on another resume that he held the prestigious position in the Ford administration listed.  

Halper declined to speak with RCI when asked for an interview in person at his Virginia home. He also declined to respond to a letter from this reporter subsequently sent to his attorney, inquiring about discrepancies documented in this article. 

Reinvention at the Center of History

For an example of the entrenched, protective, and largely unaccountable  “deep state” that many see as a central problem in Washington, one would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting embodiment than Stefan Halper. Like the fictional character Leonard Zelig in Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary, Halper – who worked for Republicans until he helped try to take down a GOP candidate – has used his ability to reinvent himself to stay at the center of history.

Little information is available about Halper’s childhood. His Wikipedia entry says he was born in 1944. A relative who requested anonymity said he was reared in New Jersey. His public biography picks up in 1967, when he graduated from Stanford University – though he was not, as he later claimed, class president. That honor belonged to Jim Binns, a Vietnam veteran who would later go on to have a distinguished career in government service. According to the Stanford Quad yearbook, Halper was president of the Institute of International Relations club.

After Stanford, Halper earned a Ph.D. from Oxford in 1971, according to both his Ford White House resume and one posted until 2020 on the website of the Institute for World Politics, a foreign policy graduate school where Halper was on the faculty as a “research professor.” At Oxford, such a doctoral degree requires a dissertation to be submitted to the university’s library system, a search of which showed no listing for Stefan Halper. The school would neither confirm nor deny for RCI whether Halper had earned a Ph.D. from the university. A 1968 newsletter does place him at the school. The dust jacket of a book of essays he co-edited in 1972 says that he “recently completed a doctoral thesis at Oxford.”

Halper’s Ford resume states that he was a Fulbright Scholar in 1971. Peter VanDerwater, Head of Outreach and Recruitment for the Fulbright Student and Scholar Programs, said he was not “able to locate [Halper’s] name in the directories we publish for the Fulbright Student and Scholar programs.”

Halper’s claims about Stanford, Oxford and the Fulbright scholarship were among the discrepancies and gaps in the official record RCI asked Halper to clarify. He declined.

The Nixon Years

During that same busy year of 1971, according to Halper’s Institute for World Politics resume, he joined the Nixon White House as a member of the Domestic Policy Council.  If this were true, it would have placed him near the nerve center of Nixon-era dirty tricks. Council staff were recruited by John Ehrlichmann, who also oversaw the infamous White House Special Investigations Unit – better known as the “plumbers.” With a team that included CIA alum E. Howard Hunt, the unit was designed to stop leaks of damaging information questioning America’s role in the Vietnam war. The plumbers would later execute the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, which led to Nixon’s resignation and landed Hunt, Ehrlichmann, and others in prison.

But civil service records obtained by RealClearInvestigations indicate that Halper did not work for the Domestic Council. His job title is listed as “Special Assistant to the Director, Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention” (SAODAP). Although this office was overseen by the Council’s head, Egil “Bud” Krogh Jr. (who was supervised by Ehrlichmann), it was a separate program within the Executive Office of the President.

Jerry Jaffe, the former head of the SAODAP program, confirmed in an email to RCI that, “Mr. Halper worked for the special action office for drug abuse prevention, and that the dates were approx 1971 to 1973.” Jaffe added: “SAODAP was not part of the Domestic Council.”

Other records show that Halper tried and failed to secure a prominent role in the administration as a speechwriter. In a 1972 memo regarding Halper’s job interview, Nixon speechwriter Harold J. “Tex” Lezar described him as “very smooth,” “a little surer than he had a right to be,” “something of a schemer,” and “a bit disingenuous.” Nonetheless, a resume Halper submitted to the White House in 1975, which is stored at the Gerald Ford presidential library, claims that he served as a “consultant” to Nixon’s speechwriting staff in 1972.

Questions were raised back then about Halper’s resume.

“I remember that at some point after he was hired someone on the staff pointed out that there were discrepancies between the credentials he claimed to have earned and those we could verify,” Jaffe wrote RCI. ”After more than 50 years, I can no longer recall what was done about these findings.”

The Ford Years

The resume Halper submitted to the Ford White House raises other questions. Along with a White House memo dated July 23, 1975, it states that he was working at the Office of Management and Budget.

Halper’s later resume posted by the Institute for World Politics places him in a far more significant position. It says that from “1974 – January 20, 1977” Halper worked at the “White House Office of the Chief of Staff [as] Assistant to the Chief of Staff. (responsibilities included summary and analysis of foreign developments and security issues).” This would have been a very significant position, as it meant Halper had worked under Ford’s noteworthy chiefs of staff – Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Alexander Haig.

But documents obtained from the Gerald Ford Presidential Library show that Halper was employed by OMB during much of that time and didn’t join the Ford White House until May 17, 1976, where he was a “consultant” in the press secretary’s office. On August 9, 1976, he moved to full-time status with the title of Staff Assistant for Communications. The Ford Library also has a December 1976 memo to Halper from Ron Nessen, Ford’s press secretary, thanking him for his service as the administration drew to a close.

While it appears that Halper struggled to gain prominent political jobs, his career soon got a leg up thanks, in part, to family ties. In the mid-1970s, Halper married Sybil Cline, whom he met while she was working at a drug abuse council and he was working at the OMB. Her father was Ray S. Cline, who served as a codebreaker for the Navy during World War II until he was assigned, in 1944, to the newly created Office of Strategic Services – a precursor of the CIA. (E. Howard Hunt had worked alongside Cline in the OSS during World War II and later at the CIA.) Cline, who died in 1996, became Director of the Directorate of Intelligence during the pivotal years from 1962 to 1966 – the No. 2 position at the Agency – and later served as the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Nixon administration.

“I think that [Halper’s] career early on was promoted by Ray [Cline],” says Richard Perle, a prominent former national security official who knew Halper from their time together in the Reagan administration. “And Ray was a pretty widely respected intelligence official.”

Ronald Reagan and the ‘Debategate’ Scandal

In 1980, Halper joined the ultimately unsuccessful first presidential campaign of former CIA Director George H.W. Bush. A Washington Post article that year reported that Bush’s primary campaign was generating “rumblings of uneasiness” over its close ties to the intelligence community. The article specifically noted that Ray Cline “recommended his son-in-law, Stefan A. Halper, a former Nixon White House aide, be hired as Bush’s director of policy development and research.”

After Ronald Reagan’s victory over President Carter, with Bush as Reagan’s running mate, Cline appears to have helped his son-in-law get a job at the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs. Richard Burt, whose long record of government service included a stint as Director of the Bureau during the Reagan Administration, confirms Cline’s influence was pivotal. “And as is typical with these new administrations you’re running or in charge of a small bureaucracy. There are usually these political types that have some kind of in with the new administration,” he said. “And you’re sort of told that you’re going to hire them.” A New York Times report from 1983 was even more blunt: “State Department officials said the White House, and [Reagan adviser and later Clinton adviser David] Gergen in particular, had applied a great deal of pressure to create this position for Mr. Halper.” Gergen did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Though Halper was closely associated with his father-in-law, those who knew them in the Reagan administration had divergent opinions of the two men. Barbara Ledeen, an ex-Senate staffer who worked in the Department of Defense in the Reagan administration, says she and her husband, Michael, who also worked under Reagan, were “old buddies through the fight against communism” with Cline during the cold war. But their interactions with Halper were off-putting. “[Halper] was like a guy who was pretending to be a Republican, but he really was not on our team at all,” Ledeen said. “He was on Stef Halper’s team.” Michael Ledeen added, “He was unreliable … a very murky person.”

Halper’s time on the Reagan team did connect him to another scandal – “Debategate.” In July 1983, the New York Times reported that Reagan’s 1980 campaign had engaged in a spying operation that obtained top secret briefing materials Jimmy Carter was using to prepare for the candidates’ second presidential debate. According to the Times, the operation “involved a number of retired Central Intelligence Agency officials and was highly secretive” and “sources identified Stefan A. Halper, a campaign aide involved in providing 24-hour news updates and policy ideas to the traveling Reagan party, as the person in charge.”

Cline told the Times that reports suggesting former CIA officials were running a spy ring for the Reagan-Bush campaign were a “romantic fallacy.” Halper told United Press International the report was “just absolutely untrue.”

The Times report noted that Halper was no longer working for the State Department at the time. 

Stefan Halper, GOP Banker

Now out of government, Halper landed a surprising position, this time in the private sector: Despite having no previous experience in finance or banking, Halper was chairman and majority shareholder, according to his IWP resume, of the Palmer National Bank in Washington.

Palmer was initially financed with nearly $3 million from Herman K. Beebe, a Louisiana financier who was convicted in 1985 of defrauding the Small Business Administration over a loan to allegedly finance a nursing home. Beebe was sentenced to community service for defrauding the SBA, but he would later serve 10 months in prison for a later fraud conviction for his role in Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s.

Beebe also had extensive ties to Louisiana and Texas politicians, including George H.W. Bush, as well as relationships with organized crime. Other key figures involved in the founding of Palmer had ties to the vice-president and former CIA director, including William Kilberg, an attorney who was part of the Reagan-Bush transition team, and Harvey McLean, Jr, a real estate developer who worked on Bush’s campaign and whose father had worked for Bush at an offshore oil drilling company.

According to “The Mafia, CIA, & George Bush” – a 1992 book by former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Pete Brewton in which Halper was interviewed and quoted – Halper was “eased” out of his position as chairman of Palmer National Bank in 1984 as Debategate attracted more publicity. Halper then became chairman (and, according to his IWP resume, majority shareholder) of the National Bank of Northern Virginia, a bank that, according to Brewton, “Palmer expressed interest in purchasing at one time.”

A Connection to Oliver North and Iran-Contra

The Palmer National Bank would go on to become closely associated with the Republican Party in the Reagan era – managing the finances of various GOP political action committees and conservative organizations, including Sen. Bob Dole’s PAC and the influential American Legislative Exchange Council. However, the bank had less reputable clients, and it appears that despite being at a different bank, Halper was still involved in operations at Palmer. Brewton reports that “a former top officer at Palmer” said Halper was responsible for bringing on conservative fundraiser Carl R. “Spitz” Channell as a client at the bank – a claim that Halper denied, telling Brewton he had “never met Spitz Channell in my life.”

Channell established an account at Palmer for the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, an organization that raised some $10 million for contras fighting Nicaragua’s ruling communist Sandinistas, after Congress prohibited U.S. military aid. Eventually that money made its way from Palmer National to Swiss bank accounts controlled by Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. While working for the White House National Security Council, North was responsible for selling weapons through cutouts to Iran, and using the profits from the arms sales to fund the contras. The Iran-contra scandal would result in weeks of televised congressional hearings and become the biggest scandal since Watergate. Channell later pleaded guilty to defrauding the government as a result of his involvement in Iran-contra, and died in 1990 at age 44 after being hit by a car while standing on a street in Washington D.C.

Despite Halper denying to Brewton any knowledge of Palmer’s role in the scandal, the day Ollie North was fired from the White House for his role in the clandestine mission to fund the contras, North titled an entry in one of his notebooks — “Legal Defense Fund” — and under the heading was written Halper’s name. Halper told Brewton: “Ollie is a friend of mine. His daughter and my daughter are in the same pony classes, stuff like that.” He also admitted to helping North after he was enmeshed in scandal. “We at that time thought we might be able to help him [North] in the development of a legal defense fund. The fund got off the ground. He did develop a legal defense fund. We got trustees and put it in place,” he said.

Further, Brewton reports that Curtis Herge, an attorney with the National Bank of Northern Virginia where Halper was chairman, represented Channell, the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, and another organization, the Nicaraguan Resistance Education Foundation, which got into legal trouble for a role in funding the contras. Herge also worked for the National Conservative Political Action Committee, a large client at Palmer National Bank.

Halper’s father-in-law, Cline, also ended up testifying before the congressional committee investigating Iran-Contra about his role advising GeoMiliTech, a company that was also heavily involved in private efforts to arm the contras. The fees GeoMiliTech paid Cline went to a company whose stockholders were members of Cline’s family, including his daughter Sybil, Halper’s wife. Halper and Sybil Cline would separate at some point around this time. By 1989, Sybil Cline was travelling around Africa with Col. Bob Mackenzie, a notorious mercenary and editor at “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. They married and had a child before Mackenzie died fighting in Sierra Leone in 1995.

The Cambridge Years –and $1 Million-Plus in Dubious Pentagon ‘Research’

Throughout the 90s, Halper’s IWP resume says, he retreated into the world of think tanks and journalism. He wrote books, a syndicated newspaper column, and had various affiliations with foreign policy think tanks including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for the National Interest, and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. But if Halper avoided public controversy during this time, his personal life appeared troubled. In 1994, he was arrested in Washington D.C. for possession of crack cocaine – though the case file detailing the circumstances of the arrest has been destroyed.

In 2001, he became a professor at the University of Cambridge, where in 2004 he claimed a second Ph. D. According to Barbara Ledeen, Halper “went to England because nobody would hire him over here.”

Whether through personal pique at being frozen out by old allies or an epiphany, Halper appears to have undergone a significant ideological transformation in the early 2000s. In 2004, as the post-9/11 war on terror was in full swing, Halper, along with Jonathan Clarke, authored “America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order,” a book that attacked many figures in the Republican party foreign policy establishment whom Halper had previously worked alongside.

Perle says he was not surprised by Halper’s about face. “He was the sort of person who would befriend people with ulterior motives … He always gave the impression that he valued our relationship, which I think wasn’t sufficient to constitute a real relationship,” he said. “And then one day he, out of the blue, he writes this book about neoconservatives in which he attacks me relentlessly. It was a complete 180-degree turn.”

According to one former student, Halper didn’t exactly keep a low profile at Cambridge. In a town notable for historic buildings going back to the 13th century, Halper lived in an expensive, modernist residence with an elaborate video security system, and the student told RCI that he just assumed Halper did intelligence work. It was an astute assumption. Despite his checkered past, Halper returned to government work in 2008 – this time as an FBI informant. But controversy followed. According to an Inspector General report, in 2011 the FBI stopped using Halper as a “confidential human source” because of his “aggressiveness toward [his] handling agents” over a dispute about what he was getting paid for his services. The IG report also added that the FBI had additional concerns about “questionable allegiance to the [intelligence] targets.” The IG report doesn’t specify what “targets” the FBI was referring to, though it’s known that Halper had relationships with Russian intelligence.

But Halper rose from the ashes almost immediately. Still working at Cambridge, he began a lucrative side gig in 2012 writing research papers for the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. Ultimately he would earn more than $1 million over the next few years for foreign policy studies that appear to have made little impact until another IG report cited them as evidence of deep problems at ONA. The 2019 report notes that the cost basis for a study of potential Russian-Chinese collaboration against the U.S. included travel to Moscow and Beijing where Halper would interview key players. “None of the 851 footnotes” in that study, the IG found, “attributed source material to an interview conducted by Professor Halper.”

Halper was awarded his largest ONA contract – $411,575 for two studies on the Chinese economy – on September 26, 2016. At that same time, he was also working for the FBI. How he rekindled that relationship remains a mystery.  Halper reported to the FBI after meeting with two men affiliated with the Trump campaign who were invited to events at Cambridge: George Papadopoulos, whose supposed knowledge of Russian “dirt” on Hillary Clinton was cited as the cause for initiating the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign, and Carter Page, whose Russian business dealings led the Department of Justice to surveil him even though he had assisted the FBI in an earlier investigation. 

It’s been widely speculated the ONA was being used as a cutout for intelligence services to pay informants, as well as for other dubious services.

In 2016, an ONA employee, Adam Lovinger, complained internally that he couldn’t find a valid reason for the agency’s contracts with Halper, as well as an $11 million ONA contract given to a company owned by a close friend of Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former president and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. What Lovinger did not know at that time was that Halper was also working as a confidential source for the FBI trying to find Trump campaign ties to Russia in the final weeks of the campaign against Clinton. In January of 2017, just as Lovinger was poised to start a new job working at the Trump administration’s National Security Council under National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was a target of the FBI’s Russia investigation, Lovinger’s supervisors at ONA filed a series of charges against him involving mishandling of classified information. In May of 2017, Lovinger’s security clearance was revoked. Lovinger claims that the charges against him are politically motivated he has been at the center numerous legal actions disputing them since then..  

Also ongoing are congressional attempts to get to the bottom of ONA’s payments to Halper. On February 7 of this year, Iowa Republican Senator Grassley gave a floor speech titled “The Office Of Net Assessment Is A Failure.

“Since 2019, I’ve repeatedly asked for a full accounting of Stefan Halper’s contracts,” said Grassley. “Either they never had one or they’ve decided to obstruct Congress.”

The Matter of Michael Flynn and Svetlana Lokhova

Halper is currently listed as a trustee of the Cambridge Security Initiative, a consultancy chaired by Richard Dearlove, the former chief of the British intelligence service MI6 who, the Washington Post reported, advised former British spy Christopher Steele regarding his now discredited “dossier” alleging Trump colluded with Russia.

Notably, Dearlove also hosted a dinner in 2014 that resurfaced years later in the heat of the Russiagate furor. Two who attended and conversed at the dinner, Flynn and Russian-British scholar Svetlana Lokhova, were now linked in widely leaked innuendo about an illicit affair. In 2019, Lokhova sued Dearlove’s colleague Halper and various news outlets for defamation, asserting that that Halper intentionally misrepresented her as a “Russian spy” who “had an affair with General Flynn on the orders of Russian intelligence” and “compromised General Flynn.”

A federal judge threw out the case against the publications because the one-year statute of limitations had expired. And the suit against Halper was dismissed because there was no evidence he was the anonymous source for the article – the news outlets never revealed who the source was. An FBI agent who later worked with special counsel Robert Mueller wrote a memo in which he concluded the bureau’s original tip about Flynn and Lokhova was unreliable.

Unable to reach Halper by email, RCI went to his northern Virginia home on Feb. 23 to ask about the Flynn-Lokhova episode and other questions surrounding his long career. As he remained silent, the woman beside him ordered the reporter to leave. A few hours later, his lawyer sent a threatening letter, to which RCI responded by asking Halper to clarify the discrepancies reported in this article. Instead of providing answers, Halper’s counsel threatened legal action.

Like the fictional Zelig, Halper remains ubiquitous, in plain sight, yet hard to pin down.

This story was originally published on RealClear Investigations.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  The Curious Case Of Stefan Halper, Longtime ‘Zelig’ Of American Scandals Who ‘Crossfired’ Trump