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NYT Ponders: Could the Steele Dossier be Russian Disinformation?


- April 22nd, 2019
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Better late than never?

The day after Attorney General William Barr released the Mueller Report, the Pulitzer-laden scandal sheet known as The New York Times wondered if the salacious and unverified dossier might actually be Russian disinformation. The dossier was created by violent anti-Trumper Christopher Steele and used to spy on the Trump campaign as well as kicking off a massive counter-intelligence operation directed at the president.

Another possibility — one that Mr. Steele has not ruled out — could be Russian disinformation. That would mean that in addition to carrying out an effective attack on the Clinton campaign, Russian spymasters hedged their bets and placed a few land mines under Mr. Trump’s presidency as well.

Steele, a former British spy, was hired by opposition research firm Fusion GPS, who was paid by a law firm serving/hiding Hillary Clinton and the Democrat party. The Steele dossier, which is really several reports turned into the FBI over the span of a few months during the 2016 presidential campaign, was released to the public more than two years ago when one of the numerous media outlets that had a copy actually published it. Steele wasn’t just giving his work to Fusion and the FBI, he was pitching it to as many media outlets as he could to damage Trump. In fact, Steele’s media side hustle was the reason he was discredited and fired by the FBI. The Times musing on the dossier omits that Steele was fired from its story.

The occasion that launched the fantastical dossier into the news cycle was an orchestrated “news hook” by MSNBC star John Brennan and Twitter personality James Comey, who decided to brief Trump on its existence. Previously, the contents were too unreliable to publish but once Comey briefed Trump, there was occasion to tell the world exactly on what Comey was briefing Trump.

So for more than two years, the dossier has been available for review and at no point did the Times wonder if it was loaded with Russian disinformation. Steele, who did not travel to Russia but got his information from various Russian sources orbiting around him, clearly sources his information to Kremlin-connected phantoms in the documents but even that was not enough to pique the curiosity of the Times.

Oleg D. Kalugin, a former K.G.B. general who now lives outside Washington, saw that as plausible. “Russia has huge experience in spreading false information,” he said.

Mr. Steele declined to comment for this article. But Joshua A. Levy, a lawyer for Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, said the Mueller inquiry substantiated “the core reporting” in the Steele memos — including “that Trump campaign figures were secretly meeting Kremlin figures,” and that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, had directed “a covert operation to elect Donald J. Trump.”

No, the “core reporting” of the dossier was that a blackmailed Trump was conspiring with Russia and money was exchanging hands for election help that would be repaid by the future Trump administration’s Putin directed, overly Russia-friendly foreign policy. Such Russia-friendly policies never came to pass. The Mueller Report shows the opposite, that the Trump campaign turned away numerous opportunities the Russians dangled in front of them.

While The New York Times and many other news organizations published little about the document’s unverified claims, social media partisans and television commentators discussed them almost daily over the past two years. The dossier tantalized Mr. Trump’s opponents with a worst-case account of the president’s conduct. And for those trying to make sense of the Trump-Russia saga, the dossier infused the quest for understanding with urgency.

In blunt prose, it suggested that a foreign power had fully compromised the man who would become the next president of the United States.

Those social media partisans and television commenters have been saying the dossier was Russian propaganda designed to cause strife in the U.S. for more than two years. An initial reading of the sensational document would raise suspicion among even the moderately alert, so the fact that the Times is just noticing this possibility shows how extremely biased and invested in believing the dossier was true. Here is how the Times described parts of the dossier:

The Russians, it asserted, had tried winning over Mr. Trump with real estate deals in Moscow — which he had not taken up — and set him up with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013, filming the proceedings for future exploitation. A handful of aides were described as conspiring with the Russians at every turn.

Mr. Trump, it said, had moles inside the D.N.C. The memos claimed that he and the Kremlin had been exchanging intelligence for eight years and were using Romanian hackers against the Democrats, and that Russian pensioners in the United States were running a covert communications network.

It strains credulity that an intellectually honest outlet would not find this description the least bit outrageous but rather take it face value. The only reason the dossier and its assertions were remotely plausible to the public was because advocacy media outlets like the Times were “explaining” the “facts” to its readers. Like this:

Such shocking claims may have seemed more plausible because of the conduct of Mr. Trump and his advisers. He was outspoken in his praise for Mr. Putin and hostile toward NATO. And a dozen associates, including his son Donald Jr., met or corresponded with Russians, including some with suspected intelligence connections, while failing to report the contacts to the F.B.I.

Mr. Trump’s former lawyer Michael D. Cohen negotiated for a Trump Tower project in Moscow many months into the campaign — and later admitted lying about it to Congress, along with tax evasion and other crimes. But Mr. Cohen did not, as the dossier claimed, travel to Prague to conspire in the Russian hacking of Democrats, the Mueller report makes clear.

Similarly, Mr. Page, a foreign policy adviser, was invited to address a prestigious Moscow institute in July 2016 in what seems to have been a calculated Russian attempt to curry favor.

Is it reasonable to assert that having a foreign policy that deviates from the Times’ globalism is cause for suspecting espionage? Is it suspicious that the Trumps, who have conducted business in Russia, would have communication with Russians? Or that foreign policy experts would attend overseas events where there were Russians?

The Times goes on to describe:

The F.B.I. assembled a group of analysts to check every line of Mr. Steele’s short memos. Agents hit the streets to find and interview his sources, eventually identifying and speaking with at least two.

By summer 2017, with Mr. Mueller’s investigation in high gear, the F.B.I. still could not vouch for much of the dossier. One often-discussed claim — the detailed account of Mr. Cohen’s supposed trip to Prague — appeared to be false. Mr. Cohen’s financial records and C.I.A. queries to foreign intelligence services revealed nothing to support it.

F.B.I. agents on Mr. Mueller’s team debriefed Mr. Steele himself in London for two days in September 2017, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

Last year, in a deposition in a lawsuit filed against Buzzfeed, Mr. Steele emphasized that his reports consisted of unverified intelligence. Asked whether he took into account that some claims might be Russian fabrications, he replied, “Yes.”

Last year, Steele admitted that his work product “might be Russian fabrications” and still the Times was not interested in perusing this entirely newsworthy development.

Now that AG is interested in the origin of the Trump investigation and the spying based on Steele dossier, the Times is certainly interested.

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