Recent reporting has disclosed that Christopher Steele, the former British MI-6 agent and author of the infamous 35-page Dossier on alleged Trump/Russian collusion, has been meeting with members of Mueller’s Special Counsel’s Office. While this is indeed newsworthy, the reliance by federal law enforcement on portions of the Dossier as a virtual roadmap of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election campaign has been ongoing for many months now, as first reported by Business Insider in March 2017.
In fact, long before BuzzFeed published the entire Dossier in January 2017, Steele was already cooperating with the FBI investigation, and the FBI even considered putting Steele on the federal payroll to ensure his continued assistance. No compensation was given him, but the mere fact that it was seriously considered highlights the value that federal law enforcement placed on the material he had already gathered.
Publicly, the Dossier has become a lightning rod for criticism. Both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin immediately denounced the Dossier’s contents as “fake news,” and Trump refused to take questions from Jim Acosta of CNN, which had published a report about the Dossier, but not its entire contents. Putin echoed Trump’s denunciations in even more colorful terms, calling the Dossier “rubbish” and referring to those who leaked the document as being “worse than prostitutes.” He quickly added, however, that Moscow prostitutes “were the best in the world,” which seemed rather odd since the more salacious allegations in the Dossier referenced Mr. Trump’s supposed liaisons with prostitutes while visiting Moscow.
The reaction from the mainstream press ranged from extreme skepticism to outright dismissal, with virtually every news outlet referring to the Dossier’s allegations as “unverified.” Few commentators at the time noted the irony that the identical language used by both the White House and the Kremlin to denounce the Dossier itself tended to corroborate the allegations of collusion.
Many of those who sought to discredit the Dossier dissected it with the working assumption that if some of the Dossier’s contents could be shown to be inaccurate, then all of it could be rejected. It was repeatedly pointed out, for example, that Alfa Bank, one of the Russian banks regularly used by Russian intelligence to move money around the globe, was mistakenly referenced in the Dossier as “Alpha Bank.” Commentators questioned how, if Steele misspelled the names of key players, he could be relied upon to have gotten anything right.
This criticism based upon relatively minor mistakes in the Dossier struck me as fundamentally unfair. As a former federal prosecutor who had reviewed literally thousands of FBI reports (known as “302s”) I knew that if I disregarded the entirety of every document that contained spelling errors, there would be few reports left to rely on. Law enforcement agents and intelligence officers are trained to get their investigative results and interview notes into written reports as quickly as possible, so Steele well knew the importance of getting his intelligence information down on paper as quickly as possible. As a result, the Dossier was not – as some erroneously think – a highly polished final report; instead, it was a series of a dozen or more separate memos strung together in sequential order as new information became available to him. Small wonder, then, that much of it reads like a first draft.
The Dossier has also withstood scrutiny by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence community because at least several of its allegations have already been verified, while few (if any) have been found to be unfounded. In particular, the Dossier’s claim that the Trump campaign had agreed to minimize U.S. opposition to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine has been circumstantially confirmed by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and even by the press.
During the 2016 Republican convention, Trump campaign operatives under the direction of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, and J.D. Gordon, a senior Trump national security expert, succeeded in watering down the Party’s platform eliminating a proposal that the beleaguered Ukraine government be provided with “lethal weapons” by the U.S. Throughout the campaign, Trump had been saying nice things about Russia in general, and Vladimir Putin in particular, but the change in the Republican Party platform was something tangible on which Trump could deliver as a tangible gesture of goodwill. Since party platforms are largely ignored, it may have represented only a small token, but it was an indication of what Trump could do for those who helped him in the unlikely event that he won the election.
Further evidence supporting the Dossier’s validity surfaced on February 10, 2017, when CNN reported that multiple U.S. officials had corroborated some communications between “senior Russian officials and other Russian individuals” described in the Dossier. Sources told CNN that these conversations had been “intercepted during routine intelligence gathering.” CNN further reported that such corroboration gave “US intelligence and law enforcement ‘greater confidence’ in the credibility of aspects of the dossier.”
Last week, even some of the Republican leadership in Congress, including Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, begrudgingly conceded that at least some of the “timeline” in the Dossier had been corroborated. Nevertheless, Burr personally criticized Steele for supposedly refusing to meet with the Committee, an allegation that the Steele camp roundly denied.
Thus, although the full extent to which the Dossier’s allegations hold up is not yet known, it has unquestionably been a major source of information and leads for U.S. investigators. Anyone who says differently is just spreading “fake news.”