This morning, I wrote in Rolling Stone, “Why is Christopher Steele still a thing?” The British ex-spy reappeared as a contributor to a British intelligence report, and I argued his “dossier” tale was a press fiasco similar to the Weapons of Mass Destruction affair.
“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…”
Some on social media disputed the characterization. But let’s take a look: The Steele story was reported using the same structure as the WMD stories.
On September 8, 2002, in “U.S. Says Hussein intensifies quest for A-bomb parts,” New York Times reporters Michael Gordon and Judith Miller described a rogue dictator engaged in a “campaign against the West” in an effort to alter “the strategic balance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.”
Saddam Hussein back then was subject to sanctions Bill Clinton promised would continue “until the end of time,” while British and American pilots enforced a decade-long “no-fly zone,” bombing once every three days. Across 280,000 sorties, the U.S. and Britain had not lost a plane.
Yet the press bought the idea that Saddam Hussein, animated by visions of ancient glory – he was a “modern Nebuchadnezzar II” – was plotting to conquer the West.
In this first key WMD story, Miller/Gordon quoted a pseudonymous Iraqi scientist named “Ahmed al-Shemri” who made a variety of claims, including that Iraq had received assistance in its “chemical, germ, and nuclear” programs from Russians.
The Times wrote of al-Shemri’s allegations:
A former Unscom inspector called at least some of Mr. Shemri’s information ”plausible.” While he said it was impossible to determine the accuracy of all his claims, he believed that Mr. Shemri ”is who he claims to be, and worked where he claimed to work.”
After the invasion had begun, Miller wrote a piece called, “Illicit arms kept till eve of war, Iraqi scientist is said to assert.” She described being “permitted” to watch an Iraqi scientist conduct a WMD hunt from “a distance”:
Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, he pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried. This reporter also… was permitted to examine a letter written in Arabic that he slipped to American soldiers offering them information…
Miller didn’t end up digging the spot, but she did get officials to characterize the source:
An American military team hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq… declined to identify [the scientist]… But they said that they considered him credible.
The Times never reported on the veracity of the claims. They wrote stories about stories: outside experts who told tales to American officials, who in turn confirmed to the Times what they’d been told.
The Steele story came out the same way. An expert came to American officials with a story that was also shopped to reporters. Reporters went to American officials, who in turn confirmed being told a story.
The story was that Vladimir Putin, too, had a cunning plan to reverse history. Steele said he wanted to “encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance,” in pursuit of a “return to Nineteenth century ‘Great power’ politics.’” Through this crack, Putin would slip his secret weapon, Donald Trump.
See if these constructions sound familiar:
And a former senior intelligence officer for a Western country who specialized in Russian counterintelligence tells Mother Jones that in recent months he provided the bureau with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources…
A senior US government official not involved in this case but familiar with the former spy tells Mother Jones that he has been a credible source…
The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible.
One described him as “very credible” – a sober, cautious and meticulous professional with a formidable record.
This is the same shell game that took place in the WMD affair: X gives information to Y, who convinces Z to trust X. In both cases, officials end up vouching for the source, not the source’s story. It looks like there’s confirmation there, but it’s only implied. Add a scary geopolitical backstory, and audiences will be inclined to believe every time.
If you’re old enough to have watched Peanuts cartoons, you might remember Lucy using every trick to get Charlie Brown to keep trying to kick a football, down to a sworn affidavit that she wouldn’t pull it away at the last minute, which of course she did every time. This is the same kind of stunt, with similar results.