Yesterday, BuzzFeed published a 35-page dossier containing allegations that Russian operatives worked to identify and develop compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump. Allegedly, this is the full document from which a two-page synopsis was drawn and provided to Trump and President Obama as an appendix to a report about Russian interference in the election.
I have read through the published document, which is actually a collection of short reports containing considerable redundancy. Reportedly, these are memos to the client of an unnamed private security firm in London headed by a former British MI-6 officer who served in Russia and is considered to be a credible source by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. The investigation was commissioned by a group of anti-Trump Republicans and was subsequently supported by anti-Trump Democrats.
Much of the report has been in the hands of the United States government since the summer. The information is apparently being fact-checked by the FBI, but reportedly, it has not been easy to confirm specific details referred to in the document.
The document is somewhat odd in appearance, as it includes no headings or other information identifying who prepared it. That information has evidently been deleted, possibly out of a desire on the part of those who drafted it to remain anonymous. The Wall Street Journal has identified the ex-MI-6 officer as Christopher Steele of the Orbis security company.
I have worked for private international investigative firms, and the first thing I noted was that the language sounds right. The individual reports are exactly what one would expect in terms of tone and content on updates sent to a client to inform him or her what is happening in an investigation.
The next thing I noted was that sources are protected and described by alphabet letters, but are described by position to reveal their access to desired information. That is also what I would have expected from an intelligence officer or a good investigator. But I also noted that quite a lot of the most significant information comes from a single source, Source E. This source’s credibility or lack thereof has to be considered an important issue. With the information publicly available, it is impossible to determine if he really knows what he claims.
Having done intelligence-based investigations for clients, I would have to observe that the initiators of this work were not looking for information to exonerate Trump. That means that the investigation was looking for negatives, which also implies that the investigative firm and the sources that it acquired were not interested in learning what a nice guy Trump is. No reputable security investigative firm would out-and-out lie to a client (though there are plenty of non-reputable companies that would), but anybody who wants to stay in business would collect any and all information and present it in the most negative light possible, because that is what the client wants. That determination would also hold true for the local sources for the report, all of whom would want to stay on the gravy train as long as possible. That means that they might fabricate if they considered it to be doable without getting caught.
What I am saying is that there is a tendency to report speculation and rumors as fact, or at least something approaching that, with the whole product being put together in such a fashion as to appear credible. That is precisely what I felt when I read through the 35 pages. There is considerable detail, and some proper names are cited, including those of two close associates of Trump and one of Putin. Including proper names provides credibility, though in this case, it appears that the FBI has not been able to confirm the dates and places regarding travel and meetings, so the drafters of the document might have gotten some details wrong or might have assumed that discrepancies would not be detected by the client.
And as for Trump and Team Trump’s connection with the Russians, you can bank on the fact that the KGB successor FSB would know who is coming and going in Moscow. They would target prominent Americans and Europeans as potential sources of information and also as possible elements in influence operations, so the assumption that Trump was being monitored is quite credible. But that doesn’t mean he took the bait to do “deals” with the Russians, as the report even notes, and it does not mean that he is an agent. I would also note in passing that U.S. intelligence agencies similarly prey on foreigners passing through or being educated in this country. CIA has an entire division dedicated to spotting, assessing, and recruiting foreigners who are here for business or study, so it is very much an intelligence-agency operational imperative that is not limited to Russia.
My suspicion would be that the report is a composite of some fact, a lot of speculation, and even some fiction. It is very similar to the types of media-focused disinformation produced by both CIA and KGB in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, where a little bit of factual information would be used to provide credibility for a lot of speculation and false stories that were intended to sow doubt and confusion. In this case, the original intent might well have been to discredit Trump personally; its release at this time is likely intended to delegitimize his presidency, or to narrow his options on recalibrating with Russia.
I expect, however, that much of the possibly tall tale being told will unravel as the FBI continues and expands its investigation. Trump has predictably denounced the entire matter as “fake news.” He may be right.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.