In a deposition last June for a lawsuit related to the dossier, former British spy Christopher Steele acknowledged that his infamous report could be the product of Russian disinformation.
But Steele, a former MI6 officer who worked in Moscow, dismissed the possibility that he was hoodwinked by Russian operatives who planted anti-Trump dirt.
“All material contained this risk, but that any information that was actually provided would have been subject to scrutiny in respect of this risk,” Steele said in a June 18, 2018, deposition for a lawsuit against BuzzFeed, the original publisher of the dossier.
In other words, Steele believed that he had enough experience dealing with Russian sources that he could spot Kremlin attempts to provide him disinformation.
But the prospect that Steele did fall victim to a Russian hoax became more likely in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that the Trump campaign did not conspire or coordinate with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.
“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” reads a letter that Attorney General William Barr sent Congress summarizing Mueller’s findings.
Mueller’s finding would seem to undercut the “well-developed conspiracy” between Trump associates and Kremlin officials that Steele describes in the dossier. Steele relied on nearly three dozen sources, including numerous Kremlin officials, insiders and advisers, as well as current and former Russian intelligence officers to compile the 17 memos that make up the dossier.
There are other theories for how Steele wound up publishing what appears to be false information.
One possibility floated by Trump supporters, but that has no evidence, is that Steele or his paymaster, Fusion GPS, fabricated information in the dossier. A more charitable theory is that the dossier is based on half-baked rumor and innuendo provided to Steele through his network of sources within the Russian government.
But intelligence experts say that the intelligence community should be on the lookout for a more nefarious scenario.
“Any time in the counterintelligence business you believe the U.S. intelligence community was duped by foreigners, that is a prima facie reason a counterintelligence investigation,” says David B. Rivkin, Jr., a constitutional attorney and intelligence expert who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations.
“By definition, since there was no collusion, the dossier was disinformation, so the intelligence community was misled.”
Daniel Hoffman, a 30-year CIA veteran, says he believes that the intelligence community has likely done an assessment of whether the dossier was the product of Russian disinformation, known as dezinformansiya or deza, for short.
“I would hope the intelligence community is doing that,” Hoffman told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Hoffman was a lone voice among former intelligence community officials to question the premise of the dossier.
In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in January 2018 entitled “The Steele Dossier Fits the Kremlin Playbook,” Hoffman theorized that Russian intelligence knew in 2016 that Steele was investigating Trump and planted false information with the former British spy.
“There is a third possibility, namely that the dossier was part of a Russian espionage disinformation plot targeting both parties and America’s political process,” Hoffman wrote.
“If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that Vladimir Putin continues in the Soviet tradition of using disinformation and espionage as foreign-policy tools.”
Hoffman asserted that Russians could easily have learned about Steele’s efforts to collect intelligence on Trump, especially if Russian intelligence had hacked into the computer systems of the DNC, as Mueller has alleged.
The DNC and Clinton campaign hired opposition research firm Fusion GPS in Spring 2016. Fusion hired Steele in June 2016. During the run-up to the election, Steele and Fusion GPS executives briefed DNC lawyers, reporters and government officials on the Trump investigation. Any emails or documents referring to the Steele project in the DNC computer systems would have been vulnerable to Kremlin-backed hackers.
Steele was also likely on Russia’s radar because of his past work as MI6’s Moscow station chief. Although Steele left British intelligence in 2009 and has not visited Russia since, his private intelligence firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, has handled Russia-related issues. He also provided dozens of private intelligence reports to the State Department, and investigated Russian efforts to bribe FIFA officials to host the 2018 World Cup.
Steele also has a murky business relationship with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. Deripaska had long done business with Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman.
Deripaska was spotted at an economic forum in St. Petersburg in June 2016 with Sergei Millian, a businessman who has been identified as a major source for the dossier. Millian was also in contact with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign aide who was the FBI’s catalyst for opening its counterintelligence investigation. Papadopoulos is not mentioned in the dossier.
The bureau relied heavily on Steele’s allegations to obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against Page. In the dossier, Steele alleges that Page was the Trump campaign’s liaison to the Kremlin for the purposes of collusion. He is also accused of meeting secretly with two Kremlin insiders to discuss blackmail material on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Page, who testified before Mueller’s grand jury in November 2017, has vehemently denied the allegations. Like all other Trump associates, he has not been charged with conspiracy in the Mueller probe or any other.
The dossier’s most specific allegation of collusion involves Michael Cohen, the former Trump attorney. Citing his sources, Steele claimed that Cohen visited Prague in August 2016 to meet with Kremlin officials to arrange payments to Russian hackers.
Cohen has disputed the claim ever since the dossier was published in January 2017. His denials were taken with a grain of salt until Feb. 27 this year, when he testified under oath to Congress that he has never visited Prague.
Cohen’s testimony was widely seen as a fatal blow to the dossier.
Steele’s sources also claimed that the Kremlin is blackmailing Trump with video of him with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013.
Steele relied on intermediaries to gather information from sources within Russia. According to Michael Isikoff and David Corn, two reporters who published stories before the election based on the dossier, one thread of information that ended up in the dossier was the result of “pillow talk” between a Kremlin official and his paramour.
Rivkin told TheDCNF that he believes that Russian intelligence was likely aware of Steele’s activities and allowed them to proceed unencumbered.
“The notion that you can talk to a bunch of connected people in Moscow without the Russian intelligence knowing about it is risible,” he told TheDCNF, adding that Russians “decided not to stand in the way of it.”
“This is a classical counterintelligence investigation,” he said.
“We have a concerted effort by a group of foreigners to mislead the U.S. intelligence community in the aid of a political hit job on Trump.”
“The fact that they were duped, even if you take off the table the fundamental illegitimacy of what they were doing, carrying out a hit job on Trump, this still has to be investigated. If you don’t investigate that, what the hell are you supposed to investigate?” says Rivkin.
Rivkin said he also expects the intelligence community — either at the FBI or in Congress — to investigate whether the dossier was used as a disinformation tool.
One congressional official familiar with investigations into the dossier says that a counterintelligence probe into the disinformation component is warranted.
“According to Steele, dossier sources included high-ranking Russian government officials,” the official, who works for Republicans, told TheDCNF.
“Did they know who was collecting this info and for what purpose? Even if all they knew was that it was for some western source, would they tell the truth or would they say what’s most in Russia’s interest for the westerner to report?”
Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, acknowledged in Senate testimony that disinformation was a concern he and Steele discussed.
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Simpson acknowledged that Russia would be keen to plant disinformation.
“It’s front and center when you gather information in Russia,” said Simpson. But he expressed confidence in Steele’s abilities and experience.
Steele has shied away from the public spotlight since the dossier was published in January 2017. He has held that posture in the week since Mueller’s findings were disclosed. Steele’s business partner, Christopher Burrows, declined comment when The DCNF contacted him.
Steele recently had an opportunity to discuss his work. He was scheduled to appear at a conference in Baltimore on March 11. Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist and moderator of the event, said that Steele got “cold feet” and decided not to show.
The title of Steele’s panel: “Disinformation and Democracy.”
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