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Christopher Steele: The Real Foreign Influence in the 2016 Election?

Leaving aside the validity of what has become known as the “Steele dossier,” it’s important to look at how Christopher Steele was able to guarantee that the information in it would play a significant and ongoing role in American politics. 

Steele, who is British, did far more than simply provide opposition research to the Democratic National Committee. He was able to make sure it reached the most influential people possible in politics, media and government to shape and influence the growing narrative of the 2016 presidential election. In other words, as a skilled professional intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States. One could even call it information warfare.

This is what separates his work creating the dossier [1] (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work insinuating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of operation. Looking for foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

Steele’s skill is revealed by the now familiar Nunes [2] and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream, which is his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA (Foreign Intelligence  Surveillance Act) court.

Steele admits [3] he briefed [4] journalists off-the-record starting in summer and autumn 2016. His most significant hit came when in September 2016, journalist Michael Isikoff broke the story [5] of Trump associate Carter Page’s alleged connections to Russia. Isikoff did not cite the dossier or Steele as sources, and in fact denied they were when questioned.

Isikoff’s story didn’t just push negative information about Trump into the public consciousness. It claimed U.S. intel officials were probing ties between a Trump adviser and the Kremlin, adding credibility, suggesting the feds themselves felt the info was worthwhile. Better yet for Steele, Isikoff claimed the information came from a “well-placed Western intelligence source,” suggesting it originated from a third-party and was picked up by Western spies instead of being written by one. Steele, either as a source himself or via colleagues passing around his information, saw to it the dossier information reached journalists at Mother Jones, the BBC, Guardian and others. An article by Harold Blum in Vanity Fair [6]laid it out in April of last year:  

It wasn’t long before, as The New York Times would write, the memos by the former spy “became one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets, as reporters . . . scrambled to confirm or disprove them.”

At the same time, Steele’s info reached influential people like Sen. John McCain, who could then pick up a newspaper and believe he was seeing the “secret” info from Steele confirmed independently by an experienced journalist. And how did McCain first learn about Steele’s work? At a conference [3] in Canada, via Andrew Wood [7], former British Ambassador in Moscow. Where was Wood working at the time? Orbis [3], Christopher Steele’s research firm.

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A copy of the dossier even found its way to the State Department [8], an organization which normally should have been far removed from U.S. election politics. A contact within State passed [9] information from Clinton associates Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer (both men also played active roles behind in the scenes feeding Clinton dubious information on Libya) to and from Steele. The Grassley memo [10] suggests there is was a second [11] Steele document, in addition to the dossier, already shared with State and the FBI but not made public.

While seeding his dossier in the media and around Washington, Steele was also meeting in secret with the FBI (he claims he did not [12] inform Fusion GPS, his employer), via an FBI counterintelligence handler in Rome. Steele began feeding the FBI in July 2016 with updates into the fall, apparently in the odd guise of simply a deeply concerned, loyal British subject. “This is something of huge significance, way above party politics,” Steele commented as to his motives.

The FBI, in the process of working Steele, would have likely characterized him as a “source [13],” technically an “extra-territorial confidential human source [14].” That meant the dossier’s claims appeared to come from the ex-MI6 officer with the good reputation, not second-hand from who-knows-who in Russia (the FBI emphasized [11] Steele’s reputation when presenting the dossier to the FISA court). Think of it as a kind of money laundering which, like that process, helped muddy the real source of the goods.

The FBI used the Steele dossier to apply [15] for a FISA court surveillance warrant against Carter Page. The FBI also submitted Isikoff’s story as collaborating evidence, without explaining the article and the dossier were effectively one in the same. In intelligence work, this is known as cross-contamination [13], an amateur error. The FBI however, according to the Nunes memo, did not tell [16] the FISA court the Steele dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee as commissioned opposition research, nor did they tell the court the Isikoff article presented as collaborating evidence was in fact based on the same dossier.

Steele reached an agreement with the FBI a few weeks before the election for the bureau to pay him $50,000 [4] to continue his “research,” though the deal is believed to have fallen through after the dossier became public (an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele did in fact operate as a fully paid FBI asset.) Along the way, the FBI also informed [17] Steele of their separate investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos, a violation of security and a possible tainting of Steele’s research going forward.

The Nunes memo also showed then-associate deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr back-channeled additional material from Steele into the DOJ while working with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and her replacement, Rod Rosenstein. Ohr’s wife Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, on Steele’s project. Ohr’s wife would be especially valuable in that she would be able to clandestinely supply info to corroborate what Steele told the FBI and, via her husband, know to tailor what she passed to the questions DOJ had. The FBI did not disclose the role of Ohr’s wife, who speaks Russian [18] and has previously done contract work for the CIA, to the FISA court.

Ohr’s wife only began work for Fusion GPS in September/October 2016 [19], as the FBI sought [16] the warrant against Page based on the Steele dossier. Ohr’s wife taking a new job with Fusion GPS at that critical juncture screams of the efforts of an experienced intelligence officer looking to create yet another inside pipeline inside, essentially his own asset.

For the operation’s audacity, it was impressive: Steele took a dossier paid for by one party, and drove it deep into the Washington political machinery. His work formed in part the justification for a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump associate, the end game of which has not yet been written.

In that time, he maneuvered himself from paid opposition researcher to clandestine source for the FBI. Steele then may have planted the spouse of a senior DOJ employee as a second clandestine source to move more information into DOJ. In the intelligence world, that is as good as it gets; via two seemingly independent channels you are controlling the opponent’s information cycle.

Steele further manipulated the American media to have his information amplified and given credibility. By working simultaneously as both an anonymous and a cited source, he got his same info out as if it was coming from multiple places.

The Washington Post characterized [20] Steele as “struggling to navigate dual obligations — to his private clients, who were paying him to help Clinton win, and to a sense of public duty born of his previous life.” But The Washington Post has no idea how intelligence officers work. Their job is to befriend and engage the target to carry out the goals of their employer. When they do it right, the public summation is a line like the Post offered: you never even knew you were being used.

Meanwhile, there is informed [13] speculation Steele was more than a source [21] for the FBI, and actually may have been tasked and paid to search for specific information, essentially working as a double agent for the FBI and the DNC. Others have raised questions [22] about Steele’s status as “retired” from British intelligence, as the lines among working for MI6, working at MI6, and working with MI6 are often times largely a matter of semantics (for the record, Steele’s old boss at MI6 calls [23] the dossier credible; an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele shared all of his information with MI6.)

As for the performance of the DOJ/FBI, we do not have enough information to judge whether they were incompetent, or simply willing partners to what Steele was up to, using him as a handy pretext to open legal surveillance on someone inside the Trump circle.

So, putting talk of Russian meddling aside for a moment, is it not fair to ask if what Christopher Steele was doing could be construed as foreign influence in an American election?

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [24]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [25]: A Novel of WWII Japan. He Tweets @WeMeantWell

73 Comments (Open | Close)

73 Comments To "Christopher Steele: The Real Foreign Influence in the 2016 Election?"

#1 Comment By Some Wag On February 16, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

Johann, you are far behind the times to believe that the surveillance state hasn’t already been deployed against the enemies of Trump. They’ve been kicking in doors in the dead of night for 40 years in the guise of the drug war, and that’s only after the charm of the previous war on political dissidents wore off for the Silently Fascist Majority at the end of the 60’s. You can’t threaten what has already been. If the White House trembles in terror of what the people have feared for so long, so much the better.

#2 Comment By UGA Oldtimer On February 16, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

They just indicted a bunch of Russians for trying to interfere in the election.Shouldn’t the indict Steele, too? Like them he’s a foreigner who was engaged in trying to influenced in the election.

#3 Comment By dr doctor On February 16, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

>>>So, putting talk of Russian meddling aside for a moment, is it not fair to ask if what Christopher Steele was doing could be construed as foreign influence in an American election?<<<

HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA

#4 Comment By black matter On February 16, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

FBI & the press are useful idiots. They must be laughing in Kremlin seeing how easy it is to bring US to the edge of a constitutional crisis.

#5 Comment By BigDawg120 On February 16, 2018 @ 5:32 pm

The conversation that Michael Flynn had with the Russian ambassador was not illegal. Flynn for some reason, he is an idiot maybe, lied about having the conversation. That was what he has plead guilty too. Flynn is the victim of McCarthyism, a witch hunt.

#6 Comment By Roger On February 16, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

None of the fools criticizing this article offer any facts or substantive rebuttals. Just completely unhinged idiocy.

#7 Comment By Egypt Steve On February 16, 2018 @ 6:41 pm

Re: ” Flynn for some reason, he is an idiot maybe, lied about having the conversation.”

See, that’s the issue right there. What was the reason? Was he an idiot? Can’t be, because DJT said he would hire only the very best people. Did he just go off and talk to the FBI on his own, without ever discussing what he was going to say with a lawyer, with Jared Kushner, with DJT himself? Fat friggin chance. I’ll eat my hat if that’s true.

#8 Comment By J House On February 16, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

The deep state had it in for Carter Page and Paul Manafort over the US coup in Ukraine…read Page’s writings about it.
When they came under Trump’s wing, all the better for Obama and Hillary to target Trump via these two…

#9 Comment By Helen Marshall On February 16, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

I would never have believed, back in the 60s and 70s, that any criticism whatsoever of the FBI and the other intelligence agencies would be attacked and portrayed as “groveling” before the president. Many of the comments here show abysmal ignorance of the history of US political life over the last 50 or 60 years…Who could have imagined that elevating the FBI to godlike status would be a demand of self-styled liberals/progressives?

#10 Comment By Mister Meadful On February 16, 2018 @ 8:52 pm

Roger, those criticizing the article don’t need a substansive rebuttal, as the article itself lacks substance for its own claims. The article points to several actions of Christopher Steele and asserts its favored explanation for Steele’s motivations and plans, but does nothing to rule out other equally valid interpretations of Steele’s motivations and plans.

For instance, the very center of this article is the assertion that Steele was creating a self-confirming feedback loop. This assertion hinges upon the assumption that when Steele briefed journalists off-the-record, somehow that found its way to Isikoff, who has otherwise denied a link between the dossier and his own work. The article does not provide evidence that might corroborate this assumption beyond that mention of journalists having found out about the dossier off-the-record. If this assumption is false and Steele is not ultimately the source of Isikoff’s work (and the third paragraph even allows this as a possibility by stating a journalist could have done the same sort of work), then Steele’s dossier did not form a totally closed self-confirming loop, as it received genuine outside confirmation.

Without that self-confirming feedback loop, the article’s implication that Steele’s activities constitute the exact same sort of foreign influence as Russia’s confirmed interference falls apart. Assuming for the moment that A. the article’s narrative that Steele was using his intelligence skills to spread the dossier around DC and B. that Isikoff represents outside confirmation as per the last sentence of my previous paragraph (which I would like to emphasize, is not something we know either way and are assuming only for this sentence), then we are forced to conclude that even if Steele was using intelligence tactics to spread his dossier, he was doing so in order to bring attention to something he considered an attack on the US. You can only posit that this was a nefarious scheme if you have the self-confirming feedback loop that this article asserts without sufficient evidence.

Since this article rests on assumptions that aren’t well-founded, an intellectually honest person who disagrees with it need not waste their time submitting a thorough rebuttal in order to dismiss it. I only do so here because, quite frankly, I dislike poor arguments and have far too much time on my hands.

#11 Comment By Bango On February 17, 2018 @ 12:10 am

Just so we keep count for the Pro-Russian traitors here.

Robert Mueller’s week:

*13 Russians indicted

*3 Russian firms implicated

*1 American pleading guilty to identity theft

*Rick Gates cooperating for a plea deal

*Steve Bannon questioned for 20 hours

And more will keep coming.

#12 Comment By Bango On February 17, 2018 @ 12:18 am

And I would not be surprised if there are troll bots here, quite a few people post a lot and rely on tropes that Ukraine’s revolution was started by the CIA and other conspiracies.

In fact it is very easy to create troll accounts.

#13 Comment By Ognab On February 17, 2018 @ 12:18 am

As you can see.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 17, 2018 @ 11:32 am

So thirteen ham sandwiches have been indicted, which can never be eaten. Accusations which conveniently can never be proven, but therefore prove useful to one side of a political war for the old Washington elite consensus, since they cannot be refuted either in a court. This is an escalation of the accusations without proof a year ago, seeking by repetition inculcating mass belief through the Big Lie technique used to manufacture a court of directed public opinion.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 17, 2018 @ 11:49 am

When you have a worlwide empire, foreign governments everywhere seek to influence your own. Witness the thousands of former American government employees making millions as their paid lobbyists to do so in Washington. In the scheme of things, Russia’s a very tiny player in this pay-for-play game, and given the hostility, and the severe anti-Russian policies, a remarkably unsuccessful one. The only entity rivaling the lack of practical effect on policies affecting their own interests, is the American electorate ourselves.

#16 Comment By MB On February 17, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

So, much in the way that Barack Obama’s parents predicted his rise to the presidency prior to his birth, and had the miraculous foresight to publish a false birth announcement for him in an American newspaper, Steele preternaturally predicted the outsize role his lifetime of work in Russian investigations and his future need to delegitimize an American President Trump in the year 2017. How devious and ingenious of him!

Steele does seem to be serving as a convenient target for those who admit they are rather eager to “put talk of Russian meddling aside for a moment.” Like the Nunes memo, I’m doubtful a majority of Americans see this as anything but partisan scrambling to dissemble in the service of a truly embarrassing “Republican” president… but in any case it has become an amusing song and dance.

#17 Comment By MB On February 17, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

What’s remarkable about the latest indictment is how closely the Russian obsession with Hillary Clinton tracks with that of the American right. To me this obsession seems disproportionate to her actual influence, but perhaps that is neither here nor there: identification of enemies as a unifying cause is an important chapter in the Fascism playbook. And as we see in this article, Steele now serves as metonym for Clinton. [26]

#18 Comment By Stephen Gould On February 17, 2018 @ 2:58 pm

Whenever it is observed that Steele was opposed to Trump and wanted him to lose, the observe never considers that perhaps it was what Steele discovered that gave him that opinion.

And, fwiw, Steele’s dossier does not have to be proven to get a warrant – FISA or otherwise. It is notable that Comey actually implied that at least some of it was true – when he said that some of it was salacious and unverified, and did not say that any of it was false. Salaciousness is of course not a truthfulness criterion.

#19 Comment By Rebecca Z On February 18, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

Didn’t Steele’s dossier come with a 60% accuracy rate?

This is like weather reports, folks. It does not mean that 60% of the material is accurate, 40% falsehood. It means that any item in the dossier has an 60% chance of being partly accurate; 40% chance of being partly inaccurate. The rating applies to each report, not to the all the reports combined.

As far as ‘foreign’ influence; Steele was registered as a foreign agent; unlike many of the indicted Russians.

It’s nice and easy to make word salad and invalid comparisons when discussing all this; but this article is still innuendo, misdirection, cherry picking trash. Russian propaganda. Congrats on selling out Team USA.

#20 Comment By Egypt Steve On February 19, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

Re: “Accusations which conveniently can never be proven, but therefore prove useful to one side of a political war for the old Washington elite consensus, since they cannot be refuted either in a court.”

Not likely. If any Americans — or anyone at all who can be arrested in the U.S. or extradited here — are later indicted and tried on charges of being part of this conspiracy, then all of this evidence will be brought into court. Then we’ll see what’s what. The indictment certainly indicates that Mueller has emails and/or wiretaps.

#21 Comment By Robert On February 19, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

Steele should be locked up for about twenty years!

#22 Comment By Kenneth Almquist On February 19, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

By Peter Van Buren claims that the FBI used Isikoff’s news story to corroborate the Steele dossier. Van Buren links to the Isikoff story, and quotes from it, but apparently hasn’t read it. The Isikoff story is about the investigation into Page, and reveals some of what the FBI knows or has heard about Page. In particular, it states that “U.S. intelligence agencies…have received reports” that Page met with Sechin and Diveykin.”

We know Van Buren is mistaken because the Isikoff story doesn’t contain anything that could be used to corroborate material in the Steele dossier. “Your Honor, we have received these reports from Steele, and we know they are true because a reporter wrote that we received them.” It doesn’t make any sense.

The Isikoff story can be found here: [5]

#23 Comment By DMD On July 4, 2018 @ 11:42 pm

Mister Meadful needs to take into account the background. The British establishment are against Trump. If you just wanted to decide for yourself whether Steele’s motivation is genuinely concern or not, you’d be extremely naive to think it is. Whether there is evidence for indicting Steele is another matter, and a rather technical one. While motivation is always hard to prove, it is a fact that Steele’s actions themselves have had profound political consequences. Whatever your viewpoint, Steele has come to be enmeshed deep into the politics of the United States and has exerted strong influence on them. And, whether there was a feedback loop, or whether Steele had been sowing breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel, he is a Briton, trained in the techniques of achieving political gains by information dissemination, who works for a branch of the British government (you do understand that it is pointless to discuss whether he is retired or not) which by definition have interest in influencing politics, and for private interests besides. That is the point of the article. You should be grateful for articles such as this and you should take a moment of reflection. It is essential to take in the whole picture, rather than focus on one event at a time separately. The British do not exert their influence on this country overtly. Being able to see the details against the whole is essential for deducing what they are doing. There is a thread connecting the Clintons, the CFR, and people like Steele. You are able to look at all the facts together and find it.