The Smearing of Christopher Steele (POLITICO Magazine)

The Smearing of Christopher Steele

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Washington And The World

The Smearing of Christopher Steele

A former British intelligence officer provided information to the FBI because it alarmed him. Given the way he’s been treating, future tipsters will be less likely to come forward.

By JOHN SIPHER

In his effort to malign the U.S. Justice system and confuse the American people in a hail-Mary attempt to protect President Donald Trump, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes seems to also have confused himself.

As we now know, the intent of Nunes’ memo was to suggest that the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign was undertaken on false premises. It alleges that the FBI abused its surveillance authority by issuing a warrant to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page by basing its rationale on the controversial Steele dossier. It implies that the British intelligence officer behind that memo, former MI-6 operative Christopher Steele, and those who supported the warrant were biased against then-candidate Trump, and that the FBI and Justice Department purposely withheld that information—and the Democratic funding behind the dossier—in an attempt to gain the warrant.

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Like many observers, I was underwhelmed by the memo. Given all the hype and high-level attention, I wasn’t expecting quite such a lame effort. The memo is little more than a partisan hatchet job, and others have already made mincemeat of the many false assumptions, cherry-picked arguments, poorly articulated conclusions and poor reasoning.

I will therefore leave the bulk of the criticisms to others. Instead, as a career intelligence officer who worked on Russian espionage issues overseas, and in support of FBI counterintelligence investigations domestically, I will focus on the potential intelligence and counterintelligence issues surrounding the memo and its publication.

First, the Nunes memo claims that Steele was “a longtime FBI source.” Based on my experience, that’s unlikely. The word “source” has a very specific meaning in the intelligence community. In general, an intelligence source is someone under some level of U.S. government control, who is met and managed in a secret or clandestine manner according to rules set by the director of national intelligence. Steele does not fit the criteria.

More importantly, the U.S. does not run British citizens as sources. The British are our closest intelligence allies, with whom we regularly share information and intelligence. We do not need to steal from them. In fact, risking the theft of information from a source like Steele would jeopardize far more fruitful cooperation on a wide range of interests. Indeed, if Steele were truly being handled as an FBI source, the British government would have every right to protest loudly to the White House.

I suspect (hope), however, that Nunes knows that Steele was not an intelligence source. If he thought otherwise, it is despicable that the chairman of the bureau’s oversight committee would so cavalierly divulge a source. Why would anyone be willing to put themselves into harm’s way to work with the U.S. government again?

Instead, Steele was a former intelligence partner, who willingly shared information he believed was of interest to the U.S. If the FBI wished for him to continue his efforts, he would likely serve as a de facto paid contractor, providing his normal services, just on behalf of the FBI. In this sense, the FBI was a client, not a spymaster.

But Nunes was probably trying to confuse the issue and label Steele as a confidential source so that he can imply Steele broke some kind of law by misleading the FBI. Unfortunately for Nunes, there are no such laws. Sources come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, they’re bad people—criminals or gangsters. Like the rest of us, they all have biases. They even lie. There are no laws governing what a source can and cannot report, certainly not for foreign sources. If a source is bad, the managing agency can simply stop relying on him or her. Mistakes are the responsibility of the organization, not the source. It surely would have been a bonus for us at CIA if we could just blame our missteps on our sources. Further, despite the implications in Nunes’ memo, Steele had every right to speak to the press. Likewise, the FBI could sever its relationship at any time.

Nunes bases the bulk of his argument against Steele’s reporting on the fact that Steele commented in September 2016 to then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr that he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” This is the only line in the Nunes memo that is in bold font. The clear implication is that Steele’s personal views should have invalidated any of his work on behalf of the FBI.

A professional intelligence service understands that all sources have individual biases. Being biased is hardly a disqualifier. If it were, we would have a tough time finding sources in most countries around the world. It is the job of a handling service to understand a source’s bias, perspective, access, motivations and reliability. It is standard stuff.

If he really believes that Steele’s personal views negate his reporting, it suggests Nunes failed to read Steele’s reports or worse, misunderstands the nature of intelligence collection. Steele’s “dossier” was not a summary or analytical product but was a series of raw intelligence reports. An intelligence officer does not report personal opinions or produce finished analysis but is seeking to accurately record what his sources and sub-sources report. The professional intelligence officer’s personal opinions matter little.

More importantly, I am not so certain that Steele’s comment reflects personal bias so much as informed opinion based on professional experience. By September 2016, Steele had already reported on a damning criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. His sources had shared with him information related to financial wrongdoing, compromising personal behavior and even espionage. Rather than assuming it is some sort of inherent bias or hatred for Trump, I see Steele’s comments as those of an intelligence officer who trusts his sources and believes the information that he has been gathering. If I collected information from trusted and knowledgeable sources that Trump was potentially involved in a criminal conspiracy with Vladimir Putin, I’d be “biased” too. The fact that Steele believed so much in his reporting that he felt passionate about passing it to the FBI can be as much an argument for the defense as for Nunes’ prosecution.

However, the memo’s most serious weakness is the same as with all the other attacks on the Steele document – they pretend that the content doesn’t exist. Instead, they dwell on how the research was funded, and make no effort to refute the specific allegations. They look at it through a partisan lens and discount the substance.

This is where partisans and non-professionals misunderstand the mission of the FBI and others dedicated to national security. Professionals have to take the allegations seriously. They cannot look away from potential danger and serious crimes. Just like when the FBI receives a lead on a possible terrorist attack, they are obligated to run it to ground if it appears credible. They certainly also parse the motives of the person who provided the lead, but they cannot turn away from the threat in the meantime, especially if any of it fits with other information that has been validated.

If the FBI were approached by a former allied professional intelligence officer with whom they had a previous productive relationship and he provided extremely serious information alleging possible espionage at the highest levels, it would be professionally irresponsible of the bureau to not take the allegations seriously and investigate at least until they had a sense of whether there was any validity to them. If the information fit an existing espionage investigation, it is a no-brainer. They can psychoanalyze their source later.

In this regard the memo pretends that all of the allegations in the Steele reports are false. As I’ve written previously (“A Second Look at the Steele Dossier,” “The Steele Dossier in 2018: Everyone’s Favorite Weapon”), significant pieces of the dossier ring true. Even the recent Stormy Daniels saga is eerily similar to Steele’s reporting. Just like in the dossier, Trump’s bad behavior with women put him in a vulnerable and compromising position. Also, in both cases, his personal “fixer” Michael Cohen allegedly paid hush money to cover up the wrongdoing – even using false names and shell companies to cover his tracks in the case of Daniels. (He denies it.) On the other side of the coin, aside from labeling it “garbage” and “fake,” Trump’s supporters have been unable or unwilling to disprove any significant fact in the dossier.

Needless to say, the Nunes memo and breathless public statements hurt our standing in the world. Our intelligence collectors will have a harder time convincing potential sources or foreign liaison partners to trust us with their information. Whether or not Steele was an FBI source, the memo gives the impression that the U.S. Congress and White House were willing to smear those who take risks to give us information for political gain. I guarantee the British and others have raised the bar when it comes to passing intelligence to the U.S. And that is bad for all of us.

John Sipher is a former member of the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

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February 5, 2018 at 02:34PM

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