Should the Russia Report have relied on Christopher Steele?

1 August 2020

9:00 PM

1 August 2020

9:00 PM

When the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) Russia Report was finally published last week, the name of one person who gave evidence will have leapt out for many people. Among the ‘external expert witnesses’ listed was none other than a certain ‘Mr Christopher Steele, Director of Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd’.

Steele, you may remember, was the official author of the dossier on Donald Trump that was commissioned on behalf of the US Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2016 US election and which acquired a second life when it was published by Buzzfeed shortly before Trump’s inauguration. If you don’t remember that dossier, you probably will, when I mention that it included allegations about ‘golden showers’ and prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz Carlton – allegations strenuously denied by Mr Trump.

Anyway, in the list of experts set out towards the end of the ISC’s report, Steele’s name appeared alongside half a dozen inveterate cold warriors, such as Bill Browder (of Magnitsky fame), the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, and a clutch of others with similarly well-known views. For me, as for some other long-time Russia watchers, it seemed a predictable and unambitious selection that was destined – by accident or design – to produce the evidence the ISC wanted to hear. This was regrettable confirmation bias, groupthink, or whatever you will – but hardly a great surprise.

If the views of these witnesses are well-known, however, they are sound and sincerely held – even if some of us do not share their perspective. The inclusion of Christopher Steele, on the other hand, raised questions about why he was there. It raises still more questions now. Many months after he gave his evidence, there are reasons to cast fresh doubt on the veracity of his dossier ­– and by extension on the reliability of what he may have said to the inquiry.

The doubts are sown by a revelation reported at length in the New York Times on 25 July and circulated widely via the Twittersphere. According to the report, the prime source for the Steele dossier was no intelligence ‘deep throat’ based in Moscow, but a 42-year old researcher based in Washington. A Russian-trained lawyer with US degrees, he was named as Igor Danchenko, who supplemented his pay by taking commissions for information on his erstwhile homeland from companies such as Christopher Steele’s. He was interviewed by the FBI, and his testimony appears to contradict key parts of the dossier, suggesting that Steele may have exaggerated the soundness of some allegations.

The way this emerged was that Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator and supporter of Donald Trump, had used his position as Senate Judiciary Committee chair to ask for the release of hitherto classified information about the FBI investigation into the dossier. Unusually, this was granted, and although the name of the witness was redacted – anonymity being the price of his cooperation – he was quickly identified. Within days his name had been disclosed by the Russian television station, RT, which is ever alert to opportunities to discredit ‘Russiagate’. At this point, Danchenko allowed the New York Times to name him.

What does this tell us? It tells us – or appears to tell us, for nothing can be certain when it touches on the world of espionage – that Steele relied on secondary sources for his dossier, and that at least one of his main sources, perhaps his one main source, was not living in Russia, and does not stand by some claims in the dossier now.

Now this does not mean that everything in the Steele dossier is fiction. Danchenko may not have been the only source for those claims. Perhaps there were others with more up-to-date and authoritative knowledge of Trump’s alleged activities in Russia. It could even be, if you really want to wallow in conspiracy, that Danchenko played down some of the allegations to the FBI. This seems unlikely, however. He seems rather shocked to have been identified, he had no obvious motive for dissembling, and what he told the FBI during three days of interviews is a matter of record.

It is worth adding two points of context. Something unexpected that emerged from the 2016 inquiry into the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko was a wealth of detail about the private investigation companies that have proliferated in the UK in recent years. Invariably headed by former members of the UK intelligence services or the military, these companies specialise in compiling due diligence reports on companies or individuals – for which they command what might seem to the uninitiated, very large sums of money. Orbis, headed by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele, is one such.

The difficulty is that to make a decent living, these companies need good-quality sources, and the number of such people is small. What is more, even those who are reliable when they first arrive from their homeland find themselves less in demand once their first-hand information becomes out of date. Nor, as Litvinenko found, are sources particularly well paid. Those offering information that is accurate but dull may find it hard to get noticed. The incentive is for a source to hype his wares.

In moonlighting as a source, Igor Danchenko was doing nothing illegal. Like Litvinenko and many other Russian emigres, he found private security companies a useful source of paid work. Another who may have plied a similar trade is the double agent, Sergei Skripal, who has vanished since his mysterious 2018 poisoning in Salisbury. There have been suggestions that Skripal was a, or the, source for Steele’s Trump dossier, and had threatened to go public on its lack of substance. It was to pre-empt this, so one theory goes, that someone – Russian or British – wanted him off the scene.

A possible Skripal connection is no more than a fanciful diversion. More to the point is that Christopher Steele, the one-time head of MI6’s Russia desk, oversaw a report that has been exposed as either a shoddy or a deliberately deceptive piece of work.

We shall probably never know either what Steele told the Intelligence and Security Committee all those months ago, or how much credence his testimony commanded. There is a large annex to the ISC report that is classified and crucial passages in the published report are redacted. But either interpretation of the dossier’s production cannot but cast doubt on the reliability of his testimony, and – depending how seriously the committee took it – on at least some of the conclusions of the ISC report. After all, either this experienced ex-spy failed to detect that some of Danchenko’s material was bunkum, or he knew, but regarded all means of discrediting Trump as good. Neither would be a sound contribution to UK security policy.

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