Magazine | June 24, 2019, Issue

Steele’s Shoddy Dossier

President Donald J. Trump (Jim Young/Reuters)
Its claims were absurd, its evidence unconvincing — why did government officials ignore so many red flags?

Could former Obama-administration intelligence chiefs run any faster from the Steele dossier? “Pseudo-intelligence,” scoffs former national intelligence director James Clapper in his new memoir — after having arranged for the dossier to be included in a briefing of then-president-elect Trump, ensuring it would be published by the media. John Brennan, the former CIA director, belittles the dossier as uncorroborated reporting never refined into an authentic intelligence-agency product — and hopes we don’t notice his behind-the-scenes stoking of the dossier’s explosive allegations during the 2016 campaign. “Salacious and unverified,” sniffs former FBI director James Comey — after his bureau repeatedly relied on the dossier to obtain surveillance warrants from a federal court.

Even the principal author himself, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, no longer stands behind his work. He touted it plenty ahead of the election he told colleagues he desperately wanted Trump to lose. Later, though, when he was sued for libel in Britain and had to answer questions under oath, the dossier disintegrated into “unverified” bits of “raw intelligence” that he had passed along because they “warranted further investigation” — not because they were, you know, true.

By any objective measure, Steele’s dossier is a shoddy piece of work. Its stories are preposterous — the “pee tape,” the grandiose Trump–Russia espionage conspiracy, the closely coordinating Trump emissaries who turn out not even to know each other, the trips and meetings that never happened, the hub of conspiratorial activity that did not actually exist. Steele gets basic facts wrong. There are undated and misdated reports. The putative Russia expert repeatedly misspells the name of Alfa Bank (“Alpha”), which is among the country’s most important financial institutions. In the antithesis of good spycraft, Steele tried (unsuccessfully) to corroborate his sensational claims by using dodgy information pulled off the Internet, including posts by “random individuals” who were as unknown to Steele as most of Steele’s vaunted sources are unknown to everyone else. No wonder Steele’s former MI6 superior, Sir John Scarlett, scathingly assessed the dossier as falling woefully short of professional intelligence standards: The reports were “visibly” part of a “commercial” venture, unlikely ever to be corroborated, and patently suspect due to questions about who commissioned them and why they were generated.

Yet the Obama administration made the dossier the centerpiece of its Russia investigation.

The FBI eventually tried to corroborate Steele’s claims. The effort was ramped up only after the Obama administration — through the Justice Department and the bureau — peddled the dossier to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret tribunal established by Congress in the wake of the 1970s spy scandals to give Americans a modicum of due-process protection against national-security monitoring. Months after the FISA warrants were issued, enabling the bureau to monitor former Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page, then-director Comey sheepishly conceded to Judiciary Committee senators that investigators had not verified the allegations; they had relied on them because they had believed Steele. This despite the fact that Steele had not even pretended to be the actual source of the allegations. Essentially, he was an aggregator, a collector of rank rumor.

Proceeding in this manner flouted an elementary principle. All warrants require the government to make a probable-cause showing about the target. In criminal law, it must illustrate that a crime has been committed; in counterintelligence law, that the proposed surveillance target is acting as an agent of a foreign power. Regardless of what must be proved, though, the showing must be based on information from the sources who made the relevant observations, whom the judge is given reasons to credit. The credibility of the person who assembles the source information (usually, the case agent) is largely beside the point.

Nevertheless, it’s worth asking: Just how reliable was Christopher Steele?

Steele was a virulently anti-Trump partisan. The media-Democrat encomia therefore hail him as a meticulous former British intelligence officer with a formidable record. So highly regarded was he that MI6 put him in charge of the investigation of the Putin regime’s brazen murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian-intelligence operative who had defected to Britain. Less often mentioned is that Steele had been Litvinenko’s handler when he was poisoned in 2006. Steele, we’re further told, was so well connected that he was chosen to run MI6’s all-important Russia desk. Well, yes . . . but he ran it from London. In the late Nineties, through no fault of his own, his cover in Moscow, along with that of scores of other spies, had been blown. When he was retained to pen the dossier reports, he hadn’t been to Russia in nearly 20 years. His recruiter and collaborator was the self-professed “journalist for rent” Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter. Simpson had co-founded a so-called intelligence firm, Fusion GPS, which had been contracted to do anti-Trump research for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee by Perkins Coie, their law firm.

By that point in the spring of 2016, Steele was a sleuth for hire who had done the bidding of such fine, upstanding clients as Oleg Deripaska, known as “Putin’s oligarch,” who had cornered the Russian aluminum market during the post-Soviet era of “gangster capitalism” and labors under U.S. sanctions imposed due to the regime’s malign policies. And why shouldn’t Steele work for Deripaska? Simpson, who was just as rabidly anti-Trump, had Fusion GPS doing lucrative litigation-support work for Denis Katsyv — son of Putin crony and transportation minister Pyotr Katsyv. On that project, Simpson’s main job was to savage the reputation of Bill Browder, the longtime Kremlin antagonist who spurred passage of the Magnitsky Act — Congress’s response to the Putin regime’s imprisonment, torture, and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the investigator Browder hired to uncover the massive financial fraud carried out by the regime.

The client lists of Steele and Simpson would have put any competent FBI agent on alert to the possibility that these political operatives were being fed disinformation by the Kremlin, which may have coopted them through well-paying service contracts. Ironically, such fears had informed Simpson’s own work years earlier, when he wrote a series of Wall Street Journal reports examining the corrupt interplay between the Kremlin, the oligarchs, Russian organized crime, and American political consultants — most of them Republicans, such as Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who had cut his political teeth in the 1976 Ford campaign. In fact, had the bureau done its job, it would have detected that the dossier was an updated partisan narrative derived from Simpson’s Bush 43–era investigative journalism, with the same theme of corrupt interplay between Putin’s regime and American politics.

In the media coverage of Russiagate, Steele’s intelligence-officer background has been a deceptive distraction. In drafting the dossier, he was not a detached intelligence agent whose training in the separation of fact from fiction was critical to his country’s security and prosperity. That was the Steele of years ago. Arguably it was the Steele of 2010, fresh out of MI6, who had worked with the Obama Justice Department on the heralded FIFA soccer-corruption investigation. The Steele of 2016, however, was a private eye, marshaling (or inflating) information in the light most favorable to his clients. During the Trump–Clinton contest, he was a well-paid and quite willing political hack.

Both the FBI and the Justice Department were well aware of that. Another Fusion GPS collaborator on the dossier was Nellie Ohr, a former CIA open-source researcher married to Bruce Ohr, a high-ranking Justice Department official. Nearly three months before the Obama administration used the dossier in court, Bruce Ohr told top bureau officials — including his longtime colleagues, deputy director Andrew McCabe and McCabe’s counselor, Lisa Page — that Steele was working with Nellie Ohr on anti-Trump research that was connected to the Clinton campaign. Steele told Bruce Ohr he was desperate that Trump not get elected. Ten days before the court issued FISA warrants based on the dossier, Steele told State Department official Kathleen Kavalec that he hoped his dirt on Trump would become public before Election Day and that he was cultivating relationships with various major press outlets. Kavalec passed this information along to the bureau.

Yet the Justice Department and the FBI withheld from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the dossier’s connection to the Clinton campaign, as well as Steele’s avowed commitment to defeat Trump. The FISA-warrant application not only concealed indications that Steele was leaking his unverified allegations to the media; the FBI told the court that Steele was not the “direct” source for a press story (written by Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News) for which Steele appeared to be the obvious source, and for which he was, in fact, the source. Again, this is something the FBI could have figured out with minimal effort — such as by pointedly interviewing Steele. For reasons that are still unclear, he had become a paid FBI informant in February 2016, months before his anti-Trump work started. He was obliged to answer the bureau’s questions. There is no reason to believe Steele would have held back: The FBI has never accused Steele of lying about media contacts; there were so many such contacts that it would have been foolish of Steele to deny them; Steele freely discussed them with the State Department’s Kavalec, and Justice’s Bruce Ohr knew that Fusion GPS was trying to push anti-Trump information into the press.

Steele began generating his reports in mid June. There are 17 in all, cumulating to 35 pages, most crafted before the election. The dossier spells out the essential collusion narrative that has been mass-marketed by Trump detractors since the 2016 election.

The first report, dated June 20, is what grabbed the attention of the FBI and the State Department. It is entitled “U.S. Presidential Election: Republican Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin.” Steele claimed that Putin’s regime had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump” for five years, providing the candidate “and his inner circle” with “a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” According to Steele’s star witness, described as a “former top Russian intelligence officer,” the Kremlin was able to control the New York real-estate tycoon because it possessed kompromat — blackmail material involving “perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB” (successor to the KGB). This was said to include the so-called pee tape, a 2013 video of Trump in a luxury suite at Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, cavorting with prostitutes as they performed a “golden showers (urination) show” on a bed in which President Obama and his wife, Michelle, were said to have slept.

Steele was confident in the lurid story because of his sources. Most important was a “close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow” and who had been heard to say “this Russian intelligence had been ‘very helpful.’” This source, with whom Steele was not in direct contact (i.e., it’s double-hearsay), was said to have been overheard claiming on-scene knowledge of Trump’s lewd romp — though Steele’s rambling, imprecise writing style makes it unclear whether the source had supposedly placed himself in the room or merely at the hotel.

One is left to wonder: Did it not occur to the FBI that Trump had not made any “recent trips to Moscow”? There is no record of his having been in Moscow after a brief weekend trip for a beauty pageant in 2013. Trump is a very public person, so that should not have been difficult to figure out. In 2018, the Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger pulled together and published a comprehensive account of Trump’s travel to and business dealings in Russia, going back over 30 years. Why not the world’s premier investigative agency, which had, by mid 2016, been scrutinizing Trump–Russia contacts for months, in conjunction with the rest of the government’s $50 billion–per–annum “community” of intelligence agencies? What “recent trips to Moscow” and “very helpful” Russian intelligence could Steele have been talking about?

Steele’s work is slapdash: His source for the pee tape is referred to as “Source D” in the first report but becomes “Source E” in later ones. Upon request, Steele would have been obliged to disclose his sources to the bureau (and he is known to have identified at least some of them). Regardless, these were supposedly Trump associates with Russian backgrounds; for the FBI, finding them should have been a layup. (Indeed, it is publicly rumored, though unconfirmed, that Steele’s sources included Russian-born Felix Sater, a fraudster and longtime FBI informant who was a close friend and high-school classmate of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and who partnered with Trump in real-estate ventures, including the mogul’s failed efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.)

Both the Wall Street Journal and ABC News identified Steele’s main pee-tape source as Sergei Millian. At the time, he was a 38-year-old native of Belarus who had immigrated to America in his early twenties. To be blunt, you would not trust him as far as you could throw him. Upon arriving, he worked as a translator and used the (apparently true) name “Siarhei Kukuts.” In 2006, to raise his profile, he started an outfit called “the Russian–American Chamber of Commerce.” Sounds impressive, but it was basically a Potemkin platform with little in the way of assets or activities — just the sort of entity Russian intelligence would typically use as a front for recruitment operations, which is how the FBI is said to have suspected that Millian’s “chamber” was occasionally used.

Even Simpson confided to friends that he worried Millian was an unreliable “big talker.” No wonder. Millian has claimed in Russian and American media appearances to have a close relationship with Trump and to have marketed Trump Organization properties as a real-estate broker. In reality, he barely knows Trump and cannot keep straight the story of when they met. Originally, he said it was in 2007 in Moscow. When it was suggested to him that Trump had not been in Russia that year, he revised the tale, claiming to have met the mogul in Florida at a 2008 marketing meeting.

According to Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, there was just one meeting, a photo op of the kind Trump, a global celebrity, had done thousands of times. Cohen denied Millian’s claims of a personal and professional relationship with Trump as well as a working relationship with him. (Cohen says he never met Millian but did email him warnings to stop exaggerating his ties to the Trump Organization.) No, Cohen is not the world’s most reliable source, convicted as he is of fraud and false statements. But he was right to contend that no publicly known evidence supports Millian’s claims of close Trump ties. Further, Millian’s representations have been contradictory. When challenged on his purported work as a Trump real-estate agent, he admitted to never actually having represented Trump. Significantly, Millian acknowledges that he was not with Trump during the 2013 Moscow trip. And upon being exposed as an indirect Steele source, Millian dismissed the dossier as “fake news (created by sick minds).” 

So Millian denies the pee-tape story, and it seems evident that he was not a “close associate” of Trump’s. No investigator who had interviewed Millian, or who had even questioned Steele in any depth about him, would have dared to rely on information Steele had sourced to him. And the night-and-day difference between Steele’s description of Millian’s connection to Trump and the reality of it would have induced any qualified FBI agent to pause until all of Steele’s allegations — not just the ones about Millian — could be carefully investigated. But it gets worse — much worse. Millian was not just a key source on the pee tape. He appears to be the source of Steele’s core claim:

There was a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation between [Trump] and the Russian leadership. This was managed on the Trump side by the Republican candidate’s manager, Paul Manafort, who was using foreign policy advisor Carter Page and others as intermediaries.

 Mind you, it’s not just that Steele was not in direct contact with Millian, or that Millian lacked the kind of relationship with Trump that would have enabled him to know of such a conspiratorial arrangement. Both Manafort and Page were available for interview by the FBI. In fact, they had both been interviewed on a number of occasions — Manafort in connection with his work for a Ukrainian political party; Page when he cooperated with the government’s prosecution of Russian spies (and while Manafort has now been convicted of fraud, the FBI has never accused Page of lying). Upon questioning them, an agent could easily have learned that they say they do not know each other, and that there was no evidence to the contrary. They were both on Trump’s campaign, but their roles did not intersect: Manafort, the chairman, focused on GOP convention delegates; Page was a tangential, low-level foreign-policy adviser.

But even that is not the half of it. The dossier attributes to the source identified as Millian the claim that the “Trump campaign/Kremlin co-operation” against Hillary Clinton entailed the exchange of intelligence and money at key hubs, including the Russian consulate in Miami. Except there is no Russian consulate in Miami. When Steele told this part of his story to the State Department’s Kavalec, she was able in nothing flat to confirm that it could not be true. And she immediately forwarded that information to the FBI, which was then working on the first FISA surveillance application. Yet the Obama Justice Department and the bureau represented to the court that they were aware of no derogatory information regarding Steele — in addition to concealing the dossier’s connection to the Clinton campaign, as well as Steele’s bias and media contacts.

The dossier allegation that catalyzed the surveillance of Page involved the claim that, in his purported role as Trump-campaign intermediary to the Putin regime, Page had met with two operatives close to Putin during a July 2016 trip to Moscow: Igor Sechin, head of the Kremlin-controlled energy conglomerate Rosneft; and Igor Diveykin, an influential member of Putin’s presidential administration. Sechin, under U.S. economic sanctions due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, is claimed to have said that, if Trump were elected president and lifted the sanctions, Russia would pay Page and Trump the brokerage fee from the sale of a 19 percent stake in Rosneft — a bribe that would have amounted to tens of millions of dollars. Diveykin also supposedly told Page that Russia had a kompromat file on Mrs. Clinton that it might be willing to share with the Trump campaign — while warning that there was also a file on Trump, which the tycoon should bear in mind when dealing with Russia. And the dossier had Trump lawyer Cohen in a role similar to Page’s — dispatched by Trump on a secret trip to Prague to meet with Putin’s operatives for dark discussions about (a) damage control after public revelations of Manafort and Page ties to Russia and (b) “deniable cash payments” for “hackers in Europe who had worked under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.”

Two things are especially worth noting about these claims, which have been convincingly denied by Page and Cohen. First, Steele’s vaunted sources never predicted clandestine treachery. Rather, Steele and Simpson fashioned a narrative framework of Trump–Russia collusion and then folded into the story each new publicly reported development — Page’s well-publicized trip to Russia, the hacked DNC emails, and so on. Indeed, Steele’s reports (including one written just three days before WikiLeaks began publishing the DNC emails on July 22) never said a word about the emails, even though WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had begun speaking publicly about a coming release of Clinton-related material over a month earlier. When Steele finally wrote about the emails, he echoed what the Clinton campaign was already saying publicly.

Second, there is the matter of the Kremlin sources to whom Steele attributed his information. As mentioned earlier, Steele maintained that a “former top Russian intelligence officer” was one of his principal sources — in particular, for the allegation that Russia had amassed enough kompromat on Trump to blackmail him at a time of Putin’s choosing. Steele also purported to derive insider intelligence from what were variously described as a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure,” a “senior Kremlin official,” an official close to the head of Putin’s presidential administration, and/or “two well-placed and established Kremlin sources.” Information was said to be forwarded to Steele through an unidentified person sometimes described as the “trusted compatriot” of these sources. And for all we know, there may have been yet more intermediaries in the telephone game between the sources, the “compatriot,” and Steele.

When he was interviewed by the State Department’s Kathleen Kavalec in October 2016, Steele claimed his sources included Vyacheslav Trubnikov and Vladislov Surkov. A regime eminence, Trubnikov ran Russia’s SVR (the external intelligence service, analogous to our CIA) before Putin came to power. Thereafter, he served in other key posts: first deputy for foreign affairs, ambassador to India, and omnipresent counselor. Surkov, who has been Russia’s deputy prime minister, may now be Putin’s top adviser — referred to as the “Kremlin demiurge” and “Putin’s Rasputin.”

Really? We’re supposed to believe that when Steele was not slumming with the wannabe likes of Sergei Millian, he was plugged in to the crème de la Kremlin? Count me skeptical. As Daniel Hoffman, the CIA’s former station chief in Moscow, told the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, trusted figures in Russia’s national-security bureaucracy “never stop” working for the Kremlin. In Trubnikov’s case, “there’s no such thing as a former intelligence officer.” And Surkov might as well be Putin’s right hand. If these characters were Steele’s sources, they were not spying on the Kremlin but getting the West believe what the Kremlin wanted to West to believe.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report found no conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. What remain to be investigated are the neon-flashing indications that we’ve been had.

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