Lawyers representing the ex-spook-turned-private-investigator Christopher Steele were in action yesterday at London’s High Court. In a rather convoluted turn of events, BuzzFeed, who published Steele’s leaked dossier on links relating to Trump and Moscow, is now seeking to question the author “on the dossier as a whole” because of the document’s importance in the “public’s understanding of the ongoing federal investigations”. In other words, BuzzFeed wants Steele to spill the beans on some of his claims. And they’re right.
Steele’s dossier is one of the keystones of the Mueller investigation. The document, which presents a recording of source and sub-source reports, contains within it allegations that not only did Trump knowingly collude with Russian intelligence, but that he was also on the receiving end of the FSB’s favourite trick of accruing compromising information on the subject for coercion purposes. These claims (along with others) are the scent that Mueller’s hounds and trailing.
Despite the gravity of the allegations and the implications that they would have if fully verified, Steele has remained decidedly tight lipped about his part in the affair. Which is, of course, understandable given the recent fall in life expectancy of agents in the UK hostile to Russia. Added to that, Steele, perhaps naively, never expected that he would become the focus of a press and governmental furore. And as with all cases involving the intelligence services, there is a whole iceberg’s worth of information that the tip above the water doesn’t give an indication of; and while Steele may not be talking in public, he will certainly be continuing to talk privately with the FBI.
There is also a certain extent to which BuzzFeed is trying to cover its tracks, after being roundly criticised for publishing the document without the least hint of an attempt to verify any of the allegations in it. But where BuzzFeed does have a point is in the public’s right to know. The dossier produced some of the most extraordinary and salacious claims ever made against a President, yet over a year on we are still no closer, it would seem, to discovering whether the man currently sitting as the leader of a 325-million-strong nation is a Kremlin stooge. Left unsubstantiated those allegations remain nothing but fodder for the fake news fanatics.
Steele is respected in his field, and Orbis Business Intelligence, his private investigations company, trades off that reputation. Moreover, the FBI was willing to sponsor the continuation of his investigation, so it is certainly possible that there is fair amount of truth to the claims. Were Steele to break the silence and provide a testimony about his work on the dossier (as BuzzFeed has requested), swaths of detractors, from House intelligence committee chair, Devin Nunes, to the President himself would become rather less cocksure.
Among the scant number of statements made by Orbis on the matter, is the pronouncement that they would fight BuzzFeed “tooth and nail” in the courts to oppose the request. What Steele and Orbis are fighting for is the prolonged anonymity of the dossier’s sources, which according to the document include “a former top-level intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin” and a “senior Russian foreign ministry official”. Less altruistically, however, he’s also fighting for his professional reputation – because if those names are revealed, he won’t have another source speak to him again.
BuzzFeed has said that if they win the case they would not demand the names of specific sources, just a “testimony” from Steele. Whether or not a “testimony” would yield any significant development in the slow and turgid march towards concrete information on Trump’s involvement with the Russians is questionable. But it would surely be a move in the right direction.