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 (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 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 he briefed 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 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 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 in Canada, via Andrew Wood, former British Ambassador in Moscow. Where was Wood working at the time? Orbis, Christopher Steele’s research firm.
A copy of the dossier even found its way to the State Department, an organization which normally should have been far removed from U.S. election politics. A contact within State passed 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 suggests there is was a second 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 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,” technically an “extra-territorial confidential human source.” 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 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 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, an amateur error. The FBI however, according to the Nunes memo, did not tell 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 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 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 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, as the FBI sought 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 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 speculation Steele was more than a source 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 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 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: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He Tweets @WeMeantWell