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The Steele dossier has always been misunderstood

The story of the Christopher Steele dossier took its latest turn this week with the acquittal of Igor Danchenko, an analyst who worked on the dossier and was accused of lying to the FBI about it. The case that John H. Durham brought against Danchenko was so weak that the judge threw out one of the charges before a jury could deliberate on it, and the jury spent only one day before it acquitted Danchenko of the charges against him.

This likely ends the quixotic quest of Durham to discredit the Mueller probe into former President Donald Trump’s Russia ties and lend credence to Trump’s claim that it was always a hoax. History will look back on this week as another chapter in the saga of the Steele dossier, which has always been over-hyped and used by both sides to advance their agendas.

First journalists treated the sensational dossier as proof of Donald Trump’s Manchurian Candidate-style nomination for the U.S. presidency. Supporters of the former president believe he was the victim of a “witch hunt” and that the dossier was a critical part of it.

For those of us in corporate investigations, it is neither.

At heart is confusion over exactly what the Steele dossier actually is. To shed light on that, let us first describe the process that typically surfaces the type of information found in the Steele dossier and how it is used.

When a corporate investigation firm is tasked with delving into the background of a subject, it typically approaches it from two perspectives: public records research and what is known as discreet source inquiries. The former is an exhaustive look at what can be found through internet searches, news sites, blogs and social media. It also includes utilizing a variety of proprietary databases like Lexis-Nexis and Accurint, as well as criminal and litigation records research.

Often a client can be satisfied by public records research to feel their risk exposure has been mitigated. This is particularly true if the subject has little or no international profile.

Discreet source inquiries are used when concern is raised by items in public records, or a client simply requires a deeper background check. These inquiries leverage human intelligence — often utilizing former spies like Christopher Steele who have good source networks — to conduct interviews about the subject.

A comprehensive investigation will involve inquiries with a variety of sources to create a mosaic of information. During the investigation, the work is fluid, with information coming in from one source raising questions an investigator might ask of another source. Questions will be driven by the nature of the background check or what might have surfaced in the public records research.

Once the information is collected, it is collated into a report along with the public records research. It varies amongst clients as to whether any editorializing is part of such a report. Some want none because it could open them to questions of liability if they don’t act on certain pieces of information. Others want the investigator’s viewpoint (but often just want a verbal briefing — no paper trail).

This kind of contextualizing is often extremely important. For instance, we’ve worked on many cases involving individuals from Eastern Europe involved in shady deals in the 1990s when, for instance, tunneling of national assets was common practice. Despite these backgrounds, they might now be totally legitimate and with a decade or more of a clean record behind them. We let the client know that while this person has an unsavory past, it is far from uncommon when doing business in that country, and if they want to realize the upside of the deal, they have to get comfortable with that element of risk.

In the case of Donald Trump, a firm called Fusion GPS was paid — at first by Republicans and then later by Democratic operatives — to do a deep background check on Donald Trump. The Steele dossier was just raw intelligence based on rumors about Trump. At the time of the investigation, it would have certainly made sense to find out everything possible about Trump and his Russian ties — there was certainly enough smoke around this topic.

There is always a danger that a source is misinformed or has an axe to grind. That is why collecting intelligence from a variety of sources (as in the Steele dossier) is essential, as is contextualizing the findings. 

Donald Trump had a long history related to Russia in 2015 when Fusion GPS was commissioned, dating back to the 1980s when the Russians supposedly first targeted Trump as someone potentially useful to them. As reported by the founders of Fusion GPS in their book “A Crime in Progress,” their public records research was extremely concerning. It showed, for instance, Trump’s ties to Russians who he might have helped to launder money through property deals. It made sense to do source inquiries considering what public records showed, the subject’s international profile and the high stakes of the investigation.

What Steele found alarmed the veteran intelligence officer so much that he felt compelled to reach out to U.S. authorities, a rare event in a private investigation. The findings were shocking, but not far-fetched when contextualized with what the public records showed, and what was going on before our eyes.

Much of the Steele dossier hasn’t been disproved to date, but rather has gained greater credence based on Trump’s turbulent presidency. For instance, Trump’s imprisoned campaign chair Paul Manafort passed along campaign data to a Russian agent. Trump lied to the public about having no aspirations for deals in Russia when his team had been chasing a project in Moscow throughout his campaign. Most infamously, Trump undermined U.S. intelligence in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin by his side by agreeing with the dictator that he thought Russia had nothing to do with interfering with the U.S election. In this way, much of what the Steele dossier claimed about Trump being influenced by the Russians seems true. We still don’t have hard proof and may never have it.

If we were running this investigation in 2015 about whether to support Trump’s candidacy or if we were briefing a business client on entering a relationship with Trump, we would have advised extreme caution. That advice would have been based on the totality of our investigation, not solely on information sourced by a subcontractor, no matter how reputable or connected that person was. We still think that would have been good advice.

Don Aviv CPP, PSP, PCI, is president of Interfor International. Jeremy Hurewitz is a strategic advisor to Interfor International and policy advisor on national security at the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. The views reflected in this piece are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Rainey Center. 

Tags Christopher Steele Donald Trump Fusion GPS John Durham Paul Manafort Politics of the United States Steele dossier Trump administration US intelligence community

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