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My Turn: Inside the Trump dossier

  • Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Cincinnati on Oct. 13, 2015. AP file


For the Monitor
Friday, January 27, 2017

(This is the first of two parts. Part two will be published on Sunday.)

By ROBERT GILLETTE

‘Are we living in Nazi Germany?” an enraged Donald Trump tweeted on Jan. 11 after the website BuzzFeed published a sensational, then-anonymous, 35-page dossier alleging video recorded acts of sexual impropriety in Russia by the president-elect, and a sustained relationship between Russian intelligence and the Trump organization.

“A failing pile of garbage,” Trump called BuzzFeed. He blasted CNN as “fake news,” merely for revealing the day before that a two-page summary of the toxic dossier had been appended to the classified materials on Russian election interference prepared for the nation’s intelligence chiefs’ briefing for Trump on Jan. 6.

In a notable exercise in self-restraint, multiple national news media sat silently on the dossier’s 17 terse memos totaling 35 pages since at least October, trying to confirm it, until CNN broke the ice.

In October, then-Sen. Harry Reid wrote publicly to FBI Director James Comey demanding to know what he planned to do with “explosive information” in his hands about “close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers, and the Russian government.” In December, Sen. John McCain – reportedly after consulting with a senior British diplomat who knew and vouched for the dossier’s author – personally delivered a copy to Comey.

Yet media kept the lid on the dossier until word of the classified synopsis broke – and have continued to treat it as unconfirmed in its entirety.

According to the British newspapers the Guardian and the Independent, the dossier’s author, Christopher Steele, is a respected veteran of MI6, Britain’s CIA, with deep knowledge of Russia and street skills in Moscow.

Moreover, one of his main factual assertions has in fact been verified.

On Jan. 6, the U.S. intelligence community publicly concluded “with high confidence” that Russia’s combined cyber and propaganda operation was directed personally by Putin, with the aim of harming Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and helping Trump.

Steele’s dossier, paraphrasing multiple sources, reported precisely the same conclusion, in greater detail, six months earlier, in a memo dated June 20.

Moreover, the strategic motivations Steele reported for why the Kremlin supported Trump closely accord with the current views of leading U.S. foreign affairs analysts: Putin’s visceral hatred for Clinton, and that the Kremlin saw Trump as a powerful disruptive force in American and transatlantic politics that served Russian interests, and would continue to do even if he lost the election.

Steele’s reputation, and these elements of corroboration, make it seem highly unlikely that he is a fabricator or was being misled by devious sources. There may well be errors of detail in his dossier, an inherent risk in reporting on the highest levels of the Kremlin through intermediary sources, as he did. But with this measure of credibility, limited as it may be, the public deserves to know the main thrust of the dossier’s other assertions – with the proviso that they remain unconfirmed.

In addition to allegations that Russia holds compromising evidence of Trump’s personal conduct – “kompromat” in Russian spy jargon – Steele’s sources reported that:

A collaborative relationship between the Trump organization and Russian intelligence began as long as eight years ago, when Trump was toying with a second run for the presidency after a first brief foray in 2000;

Russian intelligence sought and obtained reports from the Trump organization on the finances and personal activities of Russian oligarchs in the U.S.;

Moscow, in turn, fed intelligence on Clinton and other Trump political opponents to his organization before and during the campaign, as well as feeding stolen Democratic e-mails to WikiLeaks;

A Trump intermediary, Carter Page, told Russia’s de facto energy czar Ivan Sechin last July that, if elected, Trump would lift U.S. sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine; Sechin was said to dangle a share in Rosneft, Russia’s gigantic state oil company, in return.

British media have reported that Steele served undercover in Moscow in the 1990s, becoming one of MI6’s leading experts on the labyrinthine connections between Russian business and the state. He was also said to be case officer to the FSB (formerly KGB) defector Alexander Litvinenko.

A bitter critic of Putin, Litvinenko was murdered in London in 2006 by Russian agents who slipped him a dose of radioactive polonium. A formal British government inquiry concluded only last January that the murder “was probably approved” by the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, “and also by President Putin.”

According to the Guardian, Steele left MI6 in 2008 to form a business intelligence firm with a former colleague. In 2010, the Guardian said, he helped the FBI in its investigation of FIFA, the multi-billion-dollar international soccer federation, that led to multiple indictments and a dramatic house-cleaning of FIFA’s Swiss-based leadership.

Sir Andrew Wood, who spent 10 years as Britain’s ambassador to Moscow, and the diplomat McCain reportedly consulted, told the Guardian on Jan. 13 that Steele – who has since gone into hiding with his family – was a “very competent professional operator,” adding that “I do not think he would make things up. I don’t think he would necessarily always draw the correct judgment but that’s not the same thing at all.”

In the first of his 17 memos, on June 20, Steele’s sources placed the Russian election interference operation and its distribution of stolen Democratic e-mails to WikiLeaks directly in Putin’s office, under his personal control and that of his then-chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. “Putin,” Steele wrote, “supported and directed” the operation to help Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton with the aim of “sowing discord and disunity both within the U.S. itself and more especially within the Transatlantic alliance.”

Initially hired by Republican Trump opponents to do opposition research, the Democratic National Committee took him on after the primaries, according to news reports. The British newspaper Independent reported that Steele was so alarmed at what he was finding that he continued working after the election without pay.

The memos are written in the universal style of raw intelligence reports – minimal comment carefully segregated from the paraphrased statements of sources, sources characterized only to indicate level of access to relevant information, last names all capitalized. Most of the material is attributed to individuals in, or with access to, Putin’s senior administrative staff, but the memos also cite at least one “Russian emigre source” close to the Trump campaign and presumably in New York, whom Steele says he accessed through intermediaries.

At best, raw intelligence of this kind does not produce prosecutorial information. But it can point the way to further investigation by all the means available to world-class intelligence agencies.

This was, perhaps, Christopher Steele’s intent.

(Robert Gillette is a former Los Angeles Times Moscow correspondent who lives in the Mount Washington Valley.)