January 9, 2018

REINFORCED STEEL:

The Steele Dossier in 2018: Everyone's Favorite Weapon (John Sipher, January 9, 2018, Just Security)

At first glance, there is not a lot of new information since I last wrote to help us come to a definitive conclusion.  However, continued patterns of behavior by the Trump team and leaks of information over the past few months have added a bit more credibility to the dossier, particularly with respect to the overarching narrative of collusion.  Mr. Steele himself was quoted in a book by Guardian journalist Luke Harding, offering his assessment that 70-90% of the dossier is accurate.

At the same time - and this point deserves special emphasis - there is nothing new to disprove the allegations.  As far as I'm aware, nobody has produced any serious evidence besmirching Mr. Steele or Orbis.  Aside from instances such as personal protestations by Carter Page and Michael Cohen and comments that Mr. Steele had made spelling mistakes in his reports, there has yet to be any proof that the events described in the dossier did not happen.  Efforts to ascribe personal bias to Mr. Steele are undercut by an understanding of the basics tenets of clandestine intelligence collection.  Raw intelligence reports, like those produced by Mr. Steele, are not finished analytical products or a means to share commentary or personal views.  The reports are merely efforts to accurately pass on information from sources with direct access to the information.

A few have suggested that the material might be part and parcel of a Russian disinformation and deception campaign.  I personally find it plausible that at some point in 2016 the Russians could have become aware Mr. Steele was fishing for information and, concerned with what he was finding, successfully seeded some material to his sources.  However, I find it highly unlikely that they could have controlled the entire effort from the start.  The Russians are very good at these "wilderness of mirrors" games but they are not ten feet tall.  A more robust discussion of that issue will have to be left for another time.  At the very least we need to ask ourselves why would the Russians attempt to mislead Steele unless they thought he was onto something?

More Recent Revelations

So, what new information do we have to evaluate the dossier?

On the side of adding credibility to the Orbis reporting, the Papadopoulos revelations, the Harding book, and Fusion GPS op-ed provide additional context that bolsters Mr. Steele's reporting.  We learned that Mr. Steele's sources were not paid, and that he felt so strongly about the information he uncovered, that he chose to go directly to the FBI.

As I mentioned in my previous piece, I take seriously the fact that Mr. Steele chose to share his work with the British and U.S. intelligence community.  The Harding book and the Simpson and Fritsch op-ed confirmed that it was Steele who approached the FBI in an effort to report his concerns and validate his reporting.  From my experience, there are a lot of groups providing some form of business intelligence.  However, very little of their information would stand up to serious scrutiny by professional intelligence services with access to legal collection tools and worldwide scope.  Most would probably only stand behind their material to a limited extent.  However, the fact that Mr. Steele was more than willing to expose his reporting to scrutiny and accountability by the best in the world, suggests that he was confident in his sources.  If there was nothing there, the FBI would gladly send him packing.

Jared Kushner's failure to turn over to Senate investigators an e-mail exchange - with the subject line "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite" - also hinted at possible efforts by the campaign to collude with Russia.  Although Kushner initially told campaign staff to turn down a request from Putin crony and alleged criminal Alexander Torshin to meet with then-candidate Trump, Donald Trump Jr. ultimately met the Russian at a May 2016 NRA dinner event.  Again, we only learned this only after Kushner was confronted with previously withheld material.

What's more, Harding's book reports that Mr. Steele utilized several of the same sources that he had relied on for previous work in support of clients in Ukraine and the FBI's FIFA investigation, which led to high-profile indictments.  The fact that these sources had demonstrated reliability in significant prior cases is important.  Orbis' record of success with clients depended on accurate reporting, and a proven track record is part of the process involved in validating and vetting sources.  Of course, we still don't have enough information on Steele's sources to have confidence in their reliability and their access to information on the Kremlin, but their having reported accurately over time provides us greater confidence than we had previously.  Steele's faith in his sources is probably why he himself attributes a high level of confidence to the dossier.

While the new information is only a sliver of what we would need to reach any conclusive assessments, it nonetheless helps to refute those partisan critics who claim that Mr. Steele's work is essentially contrived.  If he invented information from his sources, or his sources invented information, it follows that he also likely did so in his previous work with the FBI on the 2015 FIFA investigation.  Since that relationship led to the successful indictment of 14 leaders of the world soccer governing body for money laundering and collusion, it is hard to conclude that he is a swindler.

The Steele information first proved useful as a means to understand the now well-known June 2016 meeting between senior members of the Trump campaign and the Russian team including the lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.  It provided some context to Russian intelligence efforts to seek a quid-pro-quo with the Trump team.  While we do not have many more details about the meeting since my earlier piece, we have more input from key players who ascribe a level of concern to the meeting.  The offer of stolen or comprising material on Ms. Clinton that was downplayed by the Trump team, was nonetheless seen in a wholly different light by some associates.  Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has called the meeting "treasonous," and, in terms of demonstrated loyalties, both Mr. Steele and the Australian government approached the FBI when they became aware of Russia's possession of derogatory information.  Again, it is not proof, but it bolsters the possibility that Mr. Steele got wind of a possible "conspiracy of cooperation" before it was public knowledge.

The revelation that Donald Trump Jr. was engaged in communication with Wikileaks also supports this thesis.  As I noted in a separate article, Trump Jr.'s communication with Wikileaks can be read as yet another means to support a conspiratorial relationship with Russia.  If the Russians had stolen material and the Trump team was interested in weaponizing it, Wikileaks was a ready vehicle to provide both sides with plausible deniability.  At the very least, it is troubling that Donald Trump Jr. was willing to engage with WikiLeaks even though it had known ties to Russia, and the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security had only recently implicated the organization in aiding the dissemination of stolen material from U.S. persons and institutions in the election.

While there is less information arguing against the dossier, it is impossible to be confident in many of the allegations in the reports.  We still don't have enough information on the sources, their level of access and reliability, and how Mr. Steele gathered the information.  While he was trained in the tools of clandestine collection, he no longer had access to the powerful capabilities of the British or American intelligence agencies.  He could not travel to Russia and meet sources without finding himself under heavy surveillance (even if he could get a visa).  As a private citizen, he was unlikely to travel in alias.  E-mail and electronic communication in and out of Russia is heavily monitored.  I suspect that Mr. Steele used cut-outs to contact his sources, or met them when they traveled outside Russia.  In any case, we just don't have nearly enough public information to validate his sources.

Instead, we have to do all we can to look at the allegations themselves.  As noted in various reports, some of the allegations have proven to be true, or at least likely.  At the same time, a large portion of the information is yet unverified.  Of course, this is not surprising because we do not have the tools of professional investigators that can help run the leads to ground (travel and phone records, access to foreign partners, eavesdropping or means to compel cooperation).  More importantly perhaps, we cannot uncover the information because it was part of a secret effort by a hostile foreign intelligence service in the first place.

In any event, at this point it's less about using public information to validate the dossier, than it is the complete inability of Trump supporters to provide an alternate narrative. 

Posted by at January 9, 2018 11:33 AM

  

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