When Christopher Steele delivered his first report on Donald Trump’s alleged activities in Russia, including lurid claims about cavorting with prostitutes, the people who had hired the British ex-spy wanted to know that his information was solid.
“You feel good about the sourcing here?” asked Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS, a strategic intelligence firm being paid by an attorney for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Steele’s reply, Simpson later wrote, was “elliptical but firm” — he was relying on a range of Russian officials and a Trump associate.
Simpson and his business partner, Peter Fritsch, didn’t insist at the time on knowing the names of those sources, the pair wrote in their memoir, “Crime in Progress.” It was the first of many instances in which Steele’s methods were not significantly challenged, even as his explosive claims came to dominate public debate over Trump’s ties to Russia and underpin efforts by federal agents to wiretap a Trump associate.
Five years later, there are intensifying questions about whether thoseinvolved in the dossier saga — from the political operatives who commissioned it to journalists who amplified parts of itto government officials who usedit to obtain a surveillance warrant — assigned too much credibility to the allegations and the man who compiled them.
First introduced to the world in media reports as a “Real-Life James Bond,” with deep knowledge and high-level Russian sources cultivated from years of work in Britain’s intelligence service, Steele now faces considerable doubts about his methodology. Last year, a London judge found that his private intelligence firm had “failed to take reasonable steps” to verify information in the dossier.
The uncertainty about the dossier’s sourcing was deepened by the indictment this month of Washington-based analystIgor Danchenko, who authorities say served as the primary conduit of information to Steele. Danchenko is accused of lying to the FBI about where he got his information. Complicating matters, Danchenko also has suggestedthat his tips were mishandled. The analyst, who has pleaded not guilty, told the FBI shortly after the dossier became public in January 2017 that he was surprised by the use of his intelligence, saying, for example, that the report about Trump’s alleged sexual activity was based on “rumor and speculation.”
Some intelligence experts say Danchenko’s indictment shows why it was a grievous error not to subject Steele’s intelligence to more serious scrutiny. Authorities could have applied more rigor, said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA officer in Russia, by asking, “Did you test your sub-sources? Did you ask them questions to which you know the answer?”…
The Washington Post did not publish the dossier. But The Post did publish two stories about an alleged source for the dossier; large parts of those stories have been removed, and the pieces have been corrected following Danchenko’s indictment.
The allegations against Danchenko make the sourcing of Steele’s reports look more “troubling,” said John Sipher, who served the CIA in Moscow around the same time Steele was stationed there in the early 1990s. But he also stressed that Steele’s overall thesis — that Russia was attempting to influence the election — has been substantiated by the U.S. intelligence community.