Ross Douthat had an excellent column in Times on Sunday about the state of the Trump-Russia investigation. He homed in on the Steele dossier and its four major claims (or, as he put it, the four “big possibilities” it raised). The first of these “was that Russian intelligence was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the release of stolen emails through WikiLeaks.” Ross adds that this big possibility was “soon well corroborated.”
I want to take issue with both the suggestion that Steele should get any credit for this claim and the implication that the corroboration of it is in any way a corroboration of Steele. On the matter of Russia’s culpability for hacking the DNC emails published by WikiLeaks, Steele was just following the crowd. His vaunted Russian sources clearly gave him no foreknowledge about it, notwithstanding that he’d been poking around for Trump–Russia conspiracy evidence for well over a month by July 22, 2016, when publication of the DNC emails began.
This is worth exploring because it highlights an insidious aspect of the dossier that has gotten too little attention: This opposition-research screed produced by the Clinton campaign did not, through Steele’s purportedly well-placed sources, foretell events. Rather, after events occurred, Steele wove them into the Democrats’ Trump-Russia conspiracy narrative.
By autumn 2015, the FBI knew that the DNC servers had been hacked and that Russian operatives were surely the culprit. The Times reported as much on December 13, 2016.
It is well known in Western intelligence circles that WikiLeaks is, at least in part, a willing agent of Russian intelligence.
On June 12, 2016, over a month before WikiLeaks published the hacked DNC emails, Julian Assange gave an interview on the British television network ITV. In it, he announced, “We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton. . . . We have emails pending publication.”
By the time of this June 12 interview, WikiLeaks had already published a searchable index of approximately 30,000 emails from the private server on which Secretary Clinton had systematically conducted State Department business. These were the emails that she disclosed to the State Department two years after leaving office, falsely claiming they were the only ones she had that involved government business.
The natural speculation after Assange’s interview was that WikiLeaks had, and was poised to release, some or all of the approximately 32,000 emails Clinton had deleted and attempted to destroy — i.e., the emails she had not surrendered to the State Department, falsely claiming none of them involved government business. But that is not what Assange said. To repeat, he coyly indicated only that the emails he was planning to publish were “in relation to Hillary Clinton.”
Consequently, when WikiLeaks began publishing the hacked DNC emails on July 22, 2016, it was quickly and widely concluded that the Russians were responsible for the cyberespionage operation. It was also assumed that Assange’s June 12 boast about having emails “in relation to” Clinton must have been a reference to the hacked DNC emails.
Steele did not attribute the DNC hack to Russia until a few days after the emails started being published. He made the attribution in a dossier report entitled, “RUSSIA/US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: FURTHER INDICATIONS OF EXTENSIVE CONSPIRACY BETWEEN TRUMP’S CAMPAIGN TEAM AND THE KREMLIN.” Steele, whose work is shoddy in various ways, failed to put a date on this report; and in the assembled dossier published by BuzzFeed, it comes after a report he incorrectly dated “July 26, 2015” — he meant 2016, as his Fusion GPS collaborator, Glenn Simpson, explained in House Intelligence Committee testimony (page 234). But we know Steele’s report came after the publication of the hacked emails because it says so: Steele writes of “the recent appearance of DNC e-mails on WikiLeaks.”
Steele did not identify his source for the allegation that Russia was behind the WikiLeaks DNC dump. He referred, instead, to “Source E.” There has been media speculation, however, that “Source E” is Sergei Millian (a.k.a. “Siarhei Kukuts”), a 38-year-old American born in Belarus.
Millian has dubiously claimed to have marketed Trump properties to Russians. He does not appear to have been an insider positioned to know about either end of any purported conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Steele nevertheless described him as “an ethnic Russian close associate of . . . Donald TRUMP,” and cites him as support for the claim that “the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the [DNC] to the WikiLeaks platform.” Millian’s multiple-hearsay meanderings are said to have been communicated to Steele through an unidentified intermediary, to whom Millian spoke in “late July.” That means, of course, that Steele did not get this information until afterwards. By that point, the fingering of Russia was old news.
Steele’s claim is even less impressive in context.
The dossier starts with a report dated June 20 (the infamous “pee tape” report), in which Steele claims that Russia has long been cultivating Trump, and that it has a “dossier” of “kompromat” (compromising information) related to Hillary Clinton that has been “collated by the Russian Intelligence Services for many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct.”
Notice: nothing about emails.
Remember: Assange’s June 12 interview occurred eight days before Steele’s first report, and it was widely reported in the British press. Yet, there is not even a hint in Steele’s report that Russia might have emails (whether from the DNC or from Clinton herself), much less that Russia passed emails along to WikiLeaks.
Moreover, Steele completed another of his dossier reports on July 19. This is the now-infamous report about Carter Page, then a Trump-campaign adviser. Steele alleged that Page had met with two operatives close to Putin during an early July 2016 visit to Moscow: Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, the Kremlin-controlled petroleum and natural-gas conglomerate; and Igor Divyekin, an official in Putin’s administration. Page has vehemently denied this allegation, and it apparently remains unverified. More to the point: Even though Steele’s July 19 report was just three days before WikiLeaks went public with the hacked DNC emails — a time during which there must have been feverish preparatory activity that might have come to Steele’s attention if his sources were actually well-placed — there is nothing in the report about Russia hacking emails and transmitting them to WikiLeaks. Even though Steele yet again took pains to allege that the Russian government possessed a “dossier of ‘kompromat’” on Clinton that it might be willing to share with the Trump campaign, the report contains no suggestion that this kompromat included emails.
Plainly, Steele uncovered neither the Russian hacking of DNC emails, nor that Russia used WikiLeaks to publish them. Steele had no foreknowledge even though, right up until the moment the emails were published, he was leaning heavily on what he and Simpson portrayed as Steele’s well-connected Russian sources. By the time Steele discussed the hacked emails in one of his faux “intelligence reports,” days had already passed since the Clinton campaign and the DNC began publicly blaming the Kremlin. On July 24, for example, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook related that “experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails, [and are] releasing these emails for the purpose of helping Donald Trump.”
Steele did not discover anything. He simply echoed the narrative that the Clinton campaign was already spouting, folding it into a document that he stamped “intelligence report.” The subsequent investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia was behind the hacking, does not corroborate Steele. He was just repeating what lots of people were saying.
This is the Steele pattern. Where he made original allegations, those claims either cannot be verified or have been convincingly denied: e.g., the pee tape, Page’s meetings in Russia with Putin operatives, the purported Michael Cohen trip to Prague. But where Steele made assertions that are apparently true, they do not involve original discoveries unearthed by his network of sources. Rather, they are either (a) occurrences that were unhidden and easily knowable by anyone (e.g., Page’s very public July 2016 trip to Russia — as to which he was instructed by the Trump campaign that he was on his own, not representing the campaign) or (b) claims that many other people were already making (e.g., that Russia hacked the DNC emails and passed them to WikiLeaks for dissemination).
Steele’s project was not intelligence-gathering. It was the crafting of a campaign narrative about a traitorous Trump–Russia espionage conspiracy, into which new developments were melded as they occurred. That’s why Steele and Simpson peddled the information to the media at the same time Steele was feeding it to the FBI and the Justice Department. Even Steele does not claim his reports were factual; in the British libel proceedings against him, he describes them as “unverified” “raw intelligence” that “warranted further investigation.”
The Clinton campaign’s Steele dossier was the sheer spinning of rank rumor.