From The Guardian, Monday, November 4th:
Fresh evidence has also emerged of attempts by the Kremlin to infiltrate the Conservatives by a senior Russian diplomat suspected of espionage, who spent five years in London cultivating leading Tories including Johnson himself….
The committee’s report is based on analysis from Britain’s intelligence agencies, as well as third-party experts such as the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele….
Christopher Steele became famous in the United States as the author of a “dossier” that claimed Russians had been “cultivating, supporting, and assisting” Donald Trump “for at least 5 years.”
Now Steele is back, claiming that the Russians have been cultivating the Tories and Boris Johnson for . . . five years.
Steele first appeared in connection with the Trump story as a “well-placed Western intelligence source” in a 2016 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff. The piece claimed a Trump aide named Carter Page was discussing the lifting of sanctions with Igor Sechin, chief of the major Russian oil company Rosneft.
Steele, in fact, was a private opposition researcher hired by the “premium research” firm Fusion-GPS, on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign. The Yahoo story came out on September 23th, 2016; it would be more than a year before Steele’s status as a paid Clinton researcher would be made public.
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After Isikoff’s piece came out, the Clinton campaign released a statement about how it was “chilling” to learn that “U.S. intelligence officials” were “conducting a probe into suspected meetings between Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page and members of Putin’s inner circle.”
If the merry-go-round trick of commenting gravely about a story you yourself planted sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the tactic used by Vice President Dick Cheney in the early 2000s, when he went on Meet the Press to comment about “a story in The New York Times this morning” regarding Saddam Hussein’s aluminum tubes. Press figures denounced such chicanery then.
Steele’s report came out in full during the transition, in a sleazy series of maneuvers by outgoing intelligence officials, who presented the incoming president with a synopsis of Steele’s work.
When details of this meeting leaked, news outlets that previously had been sitting on Steele’s report because it was unverifiable suddenly had a “hook” to release news about the briefing: Intelligence chiefs relayed “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”
The resulting viral furor spurred Buzzfeed to publish the entire dossier, so Americans could “make up their own minds.”
In this way, the dossier was published without ever going through a vetting process. For all the talk of hacking, this was a true Trojan-horse penetration of the American news media system (not that most media companies minded, of course).
Enthusiasts now cling to the idea that the “dossier” was merely a “starting point,” and remains “neither proved nor disproved” (the New York Times translation for “unmentionable until published by someone less reputable”), but the whole shooting match should have ended once the world got a chance to read Steele’s reports. Any sane person’s Malcolm Gladwell-Blink reaction to these memos would be that they were lunatic conspiratorial horseshit on the level of Avril Lavigne dying and being replaced by a clone named “Melissa.”
Steele’s most boffo-sensational charge was Russians having a tape of Trump getting off to prostitutes peeing on a Moscow hotel bed once slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama. This, he said, “enabled” the Russians to blackmail Trump “if they so wished.” However, per Steele, Putin chose instead to offer a “regular flow” of “lucrative” real estate deals that Trump for “some unknown reason” kept declining, even though Steele simultaneously reported Trump was “exploring the real estate sector in Petersburg as well as Moscow.”
Meanwhile, Trump — who at the outset of the alleged conspiracy was issuing reality-TV challenges to heavyweights like LaToya Jackson, Meat Loaf, and Jose Canseco — was supposedly feeding Putin information about Russian oligarchs in America, through Russian émigrés “living in the U.S. as cover” (read: Russian immigrants). These middlemen were paid through the “mechanism” of Russian pension “disbursements.”
“Tens of thousands of dollars were involved,” wrote Steele, echoing Dr. Evil.
Finally, after “at least” five years of “well-developed conspiracy,” when Russia’s prize asset at last became the nominee of the Republican Party, Putin, according to Steele, withheld a secret kompromat file on Hillary Clinton that was being personally run by spokesperson Dmitry Peskov (because who doesn’t put a press chief known to half the world’s foreign correspondents in charge of a secret intelligence file?). However, it wouldn’t have mattered if Putin had given Trump the Hillary file, Steele reported, because it didn’t have anything “unorthodox or embarrassing” in it, just “eavesdropped conversations of various sorts.”
Devastating revelations? Not to Trump’s Team, who Steele claimed was “relaxed” about Russia stories appearing in the press, as those only “deflected media and Democrats’ attention” away from the real story, i.e., the “substantial . . . bribes and kickbacks” in China. Steele said these would have been “very damaging” to the Trump campaign if revealed, though Steele didn’t know what they were well enough to reveal them.
No part of this Clintonian 9/11 Truth tale of a world riddled with plotters united by the same statistically rare urge to treason (and the same strategic instinct to create unnecessary layers of felony witnesses) has ever been proved: not the “moles in the DNC and hackers in the U.S.,” nor any of the sleeper émigré conduits, nor the sophisticated Russian hackers in Prague who for some reason needed the direction of the medallion taxi owner/Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.
Trump aides Page and Paul Manafort, named as key conduits, managed to keep their conspiracy to act as intelligence go-betweens hidden even from secret FISA monitoring, the vast Chinese swindles never emerged, and no one ever found those cutout consular officials, whom Steele in an interview with a State Department official seemed to have believed were being paid out of a nonexistent Russian consulate in Miami.
If you read this and thought it was silly, you weren’t alone. In early 2017, CNN anchor Jake Tapper wrote to Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith in a snit, complaining that Smith had been “irresponsible” and “uncollegial” when he published the dossier. Was Tapper upset that Smith had broken with ethical tradition by publishing unverified material, defaming a string of named human beings as traitorous spies without evidence?
Nope. Tapper was mad that Smith had defamed the story by showing where it came from! “I think your move makes the story less serious and credible,” he wrote, in an email produced as part of a lawsuit against Buzzfeed. “I think you damaged its impact.”
Tapper apparently liked the Steele tale better when it was coming out in bits, through more politically astute sources like his buddy and future co-worker, the former director of national intelligence James Clapper, one of the four Sneaky Petes who presented Trump with the Steele synopsis.
The now-accepted notion that Steele’s importance lay in his “central claim” of Russian cyber-interference is still more revisionist propaganda. The headline of Steele’s first report was about Trump’s “compromising relationship” with the Kremlin, and the heavy focus of the “original” (i.e., non-verifiable) material in the dossier is the “two-way” Trump-Russia plot.
The American intelligence community published a conclusion about Russian interference in early January 2017 (the many coverage oddities surrounding that story comprise another subject for another time). America didn’t lose its mind for the two ensuing years because of Russian hacking, but rather because of the widespread belief that the new president was a long-cultivated Russian agent who would be found out at any moment, across years of “tipping points” and “beginnings of the end.”
The original source of this madness was Steele, and the media and political figures who leaned with all their might into this phony narrative — especially the ones who knew it originated as Clinton campaign research — should be as embarrassed as the newspapers and news networks who pushed the WMD hunt.
This obviously hasn’t happened, as the instinct instead has been to apply the Scarlet Letter of conspiracy theory to those who didn’t buy this nonsense, usually on the grounds that any effort to “discredit” Steele is just pro-Trumpism by another name.
This has nothing to do with Trump, and everything to do with restoring controls that are supposed to exist to prevent the press from leading the public off the deep end.
The WMD affair showed what happens when we don’t require sources to show us evidence, when we let political actors use the press to “confirm” their own assertions, when we report on the journey of rumors instead of the rumors themselves, and most especially when we lionize intelligence and law enforcement figures, who usually turn out to be just as craven and unreliable as the rest of us.
When we let stuff like this go, the public sees us as fools, at which point it doesn’t matter whether what we write is for or against any politician, because nobody believes us anyway. Is this really the industry standard we’re gunning for? Are we never going to own up to this one?