Editor’s note: Author Nick Dowling has worked with the intelligence community as a customer, producer, and policymaker for more than 20 years. He was director of European Affairs on the National Security Council staff at the White House during the Clinton administration. He worked closely with former MI6 officials in private intelligence work. He is currently president and CEO of IDS International, which provides training, research, logistics, and cyber security work for the United States government. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump has called the Christopher Steele dossier “fake news” and “phony stuff,” but is it?
The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, sent a trusted staff member to London to obtain a copy and deliver it to the FBI for investigation, according to the UK newspaper The Independent.
The US intelligence community has made no determination as of yet on the contents, but has deemed the documents sufficiently credible to warrant further investigation and included a summary of the dossier in briefing materials for both President Obama and President-elect Trump. It is worth noting that these leaders are all career professionals, including two non-political appointees, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers, who have zero incentive to pick a fight with their future boss.
The author, former British intelligence Russia expert Chris Steele, is a highly regarded and experienced professional known for his integrity and professionalism; not the kind of guy to invent stuff out of thin air. The Independent reported that Steele continued his reporting even after the election because he recognized how serious these charges were. He felt so threatened when the Wall Street Journal and other media released his name and the dossier that he vanished out of sight — not something you need to do if it is not real intelligence with real sources.
What about the dossier itself — does it seem credible? Why has the media been unable to verify its contents? Here are some observations from an experienced producer and consumer of intelligence:
The dossier released by Buzzfeed is not a single document but rather a collection of 17 company intelligence reports delivered to the client between June 2016 and December 2016. The format, tone, treatment of sources, and much of the substance of the reports suggest the dossier is likely an edited collection of third-party reports and not the original work of a single author, a potential factor in considering spelling or factual inconsistencies.
Much of the dossier and almost all of the controversial material is drawn from human sources, sometimes identified by role (“Sechin’s associate”) and sometimes by a code name (“Source E”). In human intelligence work, a key challenge is the vetting and validation of sources. The credibility and reliability of sources varies by individual, by issue and over time. No assessment of the dossier can be made without the corresponding information about the source’s credibility and reliability — information the media would not have. If sources or individuals were named in the documents, the US government would be in good position to investigate further. In this area, the reports contain plenty of material to support an investigation by the intelligence community.
The content suggests deep knowledge of Russian politics, actors and strategy.
The fact that it is a collection of short reports, written over time from a range of sources and authors, would put it at risk for errors, inconsistencies, or exaggerations, despite Steele’s reputation and best efforts. Finding such an error or invalidating a specific section of the report should not invalidate the rest (although Trump supporters will attempt to do exactly that).
There are some continuing reasons for skepticism. The high level of access of some sources cited is in many cases extraordinary. Sources at that level are rare and highly protected; it is surprising they would be leveraged for this type of report. Significant portions also seem to lack the caveats and caution one would normally expect in an intelligence report. This may be due to the purpose of the document as political opposition research material rather than formal intelligence work — Steele had less reason to apply the language of uncertainty typical of standard intelligence assessments.
That leaves us with two significant takeaways from the analysis: 1) there are substantial reasons to give the report credibility (highly credible author, reports of other links and communications between the Trump campaign and Russia, much of the structure and substance of the reports, the fact that the US intelligence community seems to think it deserves further investigation) and reasons to question its veracity (access to Kremlin seems too good, lack of caveat or caution in assessments, factual errors and other details). 2) There is more than enough material (sources named, locations, organizations, time frames) to keep the FBI and the intelligence community busy with an investigation for several months.
Given the serious implications for our nation — if there was proof of collusion between a presidential campaign and the Kremlin and of a president-elect potentially compromised by Russian intelligence — we cannot dismiss the dossier lightly. The nature of intelligence work is to report everything, even when there may be some disinformation included and to work to confirm with independent sources. The type of sources, organizations and issues in the Steele dossier is well beyond the type of information that the news media can confirm on its own — specialized intelligence sources and methods are needed.
When you combine this with multiple other reports about Trump campaign contacts with Russia, the unusually pro-Russian policy themes of Trump’s campaign and the reports of significant Trump business interests in Russia, there remain plenty of reasons for the FBI and intelligence community to continue to carefully and methodically continue their investigation into Russian interference in the American political system.
Despite all of the tweets and protests from the Trump team, this issue is not going away. To ensure independence, Congress needs to be involved at highly classified levels to ensure the intelligence community can do its job properly and free of interference from the White House.