Monday, August 28, 2017

The Document that Rocked Washington: A Second Look at the Steele Dossier

 by Nomad

Since its release by Buzzfeed last January, the so-called Steele dossier has more than earned the descriptive adjectives "infamous" and "explosive." In light of subsequent revelations, it might be a good time to review the file again.

The Origins of the Document

Firstly, let's examine how the Steele Dossier came into existence.

Last June, 52-year-old Christopher Steele, ex-Cambridge Union president, ex-M.I.6 Moscow field agent and ex-head of M.I.6’s Russia desk, ex-adviser to British Special Forces on capture-or-kill ops in Afghanistan, was offered an assignment through his private British intelligence firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. Suffice to say, with a CV like that, his work should not be taken lightly. Or to put it another way, Steele was not a tabloid scribbler, hunter for celebrity scandals.

The contractor for his investigation was Fusion GPS, a commercial research and strategic intelligence firm based in Washington D.C. The company had hired Orbis to collect opposition research on candidate Donald Trump. 
In particular, Steele would investigate allegations of collusion between Trump and his campaign and high-level Russian officials, presumably with the mutual consent of both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.Vanity Fair puts it like this:
The allegations of financial, cyber, and sexual shenanigans would lead to a chilling destination: the Kremlin had not only, he’d boldly assert in his report, “been cultivating, supporting, and assisting” Donald Trump for years but also had compromised the tycoon “sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.”
So who funded the Fusion GPS research? Remarkably, this would come to be a bipartisan effect, initially funded by "Never Trump" Republicans and later by Democrats. It was never made clear who on the Republican side might have shelled out the money. According to unverified reports, a major GOP donor reportedly hired Fusion GPS in Sept. 2015 and paid the firm nearly $1 million. (That date is interesting because it suggests that there were rumors of Russian collusion before Trump declared his candidacy.)

In fact, Steele continued to investigate after both parties walked away, working on the report pro bono. The completed file was later passed on to British and American intelligence services "because he believed the findings were a matter of national security for both countries."

The Cabal of Silence

Steele became dismayed when the FBI, for whatever reason, failed to make attempts to verify the information. He came to believe that the FBI was purposefully concentrating on the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails. As a result, none of the claims were ever independently confirmed. As far as can be determined, they were simply ignored.
But, according to Steele, this was not a case of mere incompetence.

Rudy Giuliani
Steele had his own theories.
According to an interview with The Independent, he concluded that there was a "cabal" within the higher levels of the FBI, particularly in the New York field office.

He, furthermore, claimed that the chief leader of this effort to block the report as Rudy Giuliani, a top Trump advisor.
The New York office, in particular, appeared to be on a crusade against Ms Clinton. Some of its agents had a long working relationship with Rudy Giuliani, by then a member of the Trump campaign, since his days as public prosecutor and then Mayor of the city.
That theory might sound harebrained until you consider another thing.
As the election approached, FBI director James Comey made public his bombshell letter saying that Ms Clinton would face another email investigation. Two days before that Mr Giuliani, then a part of the Trump team, talked about “a surprise or two you’re going to hear about in the next few days. We’ve got a couple of things up our sleeve that should turn things around”.
It would seem that somebody inside the FBI had tipped Giuliani off.

Another person who became entangled in the story was Senator John McCain who sometime in December 2016, obtained a copy of the dossier and handed to the FBI director James Comey directly. This action, seemingly ineffectual, prevented the FBI head from later being (or claiming to be) unaware of the dossier and the charges against Trump.

A month later, on  17 January 2017, Buzzfeed published the dossier and the unruly cat was out of the bag. Only three days before Trump's inauguration.  

Sabotage and Tarnish

Since that time, extraordinary efforts have been made by the Trump administration. That's no surprise, of course. More shocking were the attempts made by Republican members of Congress charged with investigating claims of Russian collusion.

Repeatedly top-ranking GOP members tried to cast doubt on the claims as well as impune the author. For example, Charles E. Grassley, Senate Judiciary Chairman, which has been charged with investigating the allegations, made several spurious or misleading charges including that the FBI paid for the GPS Fusion investigation.  
Chuck Grassley

He has, in addition, claimed that the information had been disproved when it had not. As the head of a Congressional investigation, Grassley's remarks on the Steele dossier were clearly partisan and highly inappropriate.
Other statements by Grassley were seen as attempts to muddy the waters. particularly when he brought up the idea that the dossier was, itself, a Russian plot to destroy the presidency.

It must be noted that, in January 2016, Grassley shared the stage with (and strongly endorsed) candidate Trump as he campaigned in Iowa. As the New York Times reported at the time, Mr. Grassley said:
“I’m happy to be here with such an enthusiastic group and this candidate.”
A political seal of approval of a man who would later be charged with what some might call treason.

In fairness, Grassley has radically changed his tune in light of more recent developments including the 10-hour testimony of GPS Fusion director, Glenn Simpson, a former investigative reporter with The Wall Street Journal.  According to a Fox News report, prior to his lengthy testimony, Fusion GPS had already turned over some 40,000 documents to the judiciary committee.

Grassley's distraction ploy- reshaping the narrative- has backfired miserably since the release of emails by and to Donald Trump Jr. which clearly show the Trump campaign working with Russians. Those emails suddenly made the specific accusations of the Steele documents much more credible.

Today, Grassley appears to be a reformer sinner; to the point of warning the president against firing the recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions (in order to quash the Mueller probe)
He intimated that there would be no time to confirm a new attorney general by the Senate. In the meantime, Mueller's investigation would roll on.

That's enough of the review and background. Ultimately, time will show the veracity of the dossier. So far, the claims found- outside of a few minor details- have held up to scrutiny.  

More surprising than that,  despite being available to all with a good Internet connection and a strong sense of curiosity, the dossier remains full of under-reported surprises.  

The Steele Dossier

One can find some helpful analysis online. 

One problem with conducting analysis of the Steele dossier is finding the appropriate degree of acceptance and skepticism. 
Arthur Snell who has worked for the British Foreign Office for 16 years and runs a business intelligence firm, explains how best to read the dossier. He observes:
None of the claims made in the dossier has yet been verified, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. Intelligence is information, from a privileged source, that supports decision-making. It is seldom verifiable because that information is rarely in the public domain.
With that in mind, Snell points out that the quality of the investigation can be determined.
At the heart of this game of betrayal is trust: the source of the intelligence must be trusted by his or her handler. The reader of the intelligence report has to trust the provider of the intelligence while remaining critical. Intelligence is about degrees of credibility, and reading it is not the same as reading reportage, or a piece of political analysis. In order to make an assessment of its reliability, a reader needs to examine how it’s been sourced, insofar as that’s possible.
Wise advice to the amateur sleuth. His breakdown of Steele's allegation and the level of credibility makes interesting clinical reading.

One of the most comprehensive sites for the analysis of the dossier can be found at The Moscow Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a nonpartisan, 501(c)(4) organization. The Project examines the dossier line by line and provides credibly-sourced annotations. For inquiring minds, it's a treasure trove.
The Moscow Project
What do you make of the Steele dossier? Find any intriguing bits to share.. from one nomad to another?