Russiagate has always been a farce, but even its most ardent skeptics couldn’t have predicted just how absurd the scandal would become. Case in point: newly unredacted footnotes from the Department of Justice Inspector General report on the FBI’s collusion-related spying on Trump contacts now strongly suggest that the Steele dossier was itself the product of Russian disinformation.
It feels like it’s been decades since Russiagate was the political issue of the day, so let’s first recap some basics. Christopher Steele was a former British spy retained by Fusion GPS, a DC-based research firm that was first hired by conservatives to dig up dirt on Donald Trump, before switching (once Trump was en route to become the GOP nominee) to getting paid by the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign to uncover possible connections between the billionaire candidate and Russia’s powers-that-be.
The result was the so-called Steele dossier, a greatest hits compilation of unverified, salacious gossip that alleged a conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin, including one particularly scurrilous story that titillated the anti-Trump establishment for years: that Putin had a tape of Trump in a Moscow hotel room where Obama had once stayed, where he paid a group of prostitutes to pee on the bed as some form of nonsensical revenge against the former president.
The Steele dossier super-charged a years-long media and liberal obsession with Trump and Russia, and with phrases like “pee tape” and kompromat. This was particularly so once Buzzfeed elected to publish the dossier in full, even as it acknowledged its claims “were unverified and unverifiable” or even completely false — the very reasons at least nine news organizations rejected publishing the report over the course of 2016.
Its release laid the groundwork for wholesale conspiracy theorizing by the political and media establishment: Rep. Adam Schiff read portions of it out in Congress, the FBI cited it to get permission to spy on a Trump campaign contact, and members of the media periodically experienced bouts of paranoid hysteria, its apex perhaps being Jonathan Chait’s eight-thousand-word-long piece speculating whether Trump had been a Russian spy since the days of Gorbachev. The ongoing saga diverted precious attention and resources away from Trump’s many and very real crimes, sent the media and Congress chasing a phantom that was irrelevant to most people’s lives outside the Beltway, and ultimately embarrassed those same institutions whose standing with the public was already on shaky ground.
The Steele dossier, in other words, subsumed all of national politics for the better part of Trump’s first term, when mobilizing against his attacks on the working class, minorities, and the natural world were most vital. And now, it turns out, it may have all been part of a real and actually effective Russian disinformation campaign.
“We identified reporting the Crossfire Hurricane team received from [redacted] indicating the potential for Russian disinformation influencing Steele’s election reporting,” one footnote reads, pointing to Steele’s false reporting that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had travelled to Prague to meet with Kremlin contacts during the campaign. “The [redacted] stated that it did not have high confidence in this subset of Steele’s reporting and assessed that the referenced subset was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate US foreign relations.”
According to the report, by the end of February 2017, US intelligence had learned that an unnamed individual connected to both Trump and Russia was claiming that newspaper reports about Trump’s 2013 Moscow trip — the occasion for the mythical “pee tape” — were wrong. Such claims “were the product of RIS ‘infiltrate[ing]a source into the network’ of a [redacted] who compiled a dossier of that individual on Trump’s activities,” the report reads.
Steele had relied heavily on a “primary sub-source” who in turn relied on other sub-sources within Russia to provide the hearsay that filled Steele’s dossier. That primary sub-source later told the FBI one of his sources “had connections to Russian intelligence services.” Another sub-source, whom Steele himself had called a “boaster” and “egoist” who “may engage in some embellishment,” had “historical contact with persons and entities suspected of being linked to RIS,” and had themselves been “rumored to be a former KGB/SVR officer.” By June 2017, says another footnote, the FBI got information that one of those sub-sources had “contacts” with someone in the Kremlin during June and July the year before. In an added twist, that particular sub-source had been “voicing strong support for candidate Clinton in the 2016.”
Steele’s investigation, it seems, provided the perfect opening for Russian intelligence to launch a disinformation campaign. According to one footnote, “two persons affiliated with RIS [Russian Intelligence Services] were aware of Steele’s election investigation in early July 2016,” while another states that “sensitive source reporting from June 2017 indicated that a [person affiliated] to [sic] Russian Oligarch 1 was [possibly aware] of Steele’s election investigation as of early July 2016.”
That unnamed oligarch was a powerful Russian businessman who Steele was working for “on litigation matters,” and was a target of US sanctions owing to “his links to senior Russian government officials, suspected criminal activities, and ties to Russian organized crime.” FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director E. W. Priestap, who had given the OK to the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, later told the OIG the oligarch was “supposed to be close, very close to the Kremlin.” The original OIG report had already contained suggestions the oligarch may have been part of a disinformation campaign: one agent stated that Steele’s connection to him “could have indicated that Steele was being used in a Russian ‘controlled operation’ to influence perceptions (i.e. a disinformation campaign).”
In other words, there is now more evidence that the Steele dossier itself — and by extension, the entire collusion saga pushed by the political and media establishment — was a vehicle for Russian disinformation than there ever was for the existence some vast conspiracy between Trump and Putin. Recall that Robert Mueller’s investigation found that once Trump actually won, the Kremlin “appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect,” and that Putin privately “spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.” By contrast, the FBI’s own investigations suggest Russian intelligence learned early on about Steele’s fishing expedition, and used it to infect the US body politic with a conspiracy theory that dominated political discourse for at least two years.
If correct, this is remarkable for several reasons. The New York Times had once accused the US media of serving as “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence” simply for reporting on scandalous but true information contained in hacked DNC and Clinton campaign emails. But this suggests that the very media outlets and political figures who spent years accusing opponents of being Kremlin assets on the basis of the Steele dossier were themselves inadvertently doing the Kremlin’s bidding, abandoning traditional reporting standards and sowing paranoia, division, and panic in the United States by pushing a wild, unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that had secretly come from Russian intelligence.
That the operation may have succeeded is not, as many will surely claim, owing to Putin’s genius; this is, after all, the same man who once locked himself inside an elevator shaft in which he was meeting a co-conspirator. Its apparent success in fostering the political chaos of the last few years owes largely to the already existing weaknesses of the US institutions: an increasingly partisan press unhealthily trusting of US intelligence sources; a political class that has long since lost touch with the lives of the people it is meant to serve; and a powerful and unaccountable national security state equal parts obsessed with and afraid of Russia, a third-rate power riven by its own crises and conflicts.
In an added irony, it is Democrats and the Clinton campaign itself, whose former standard-bearer has long blamed Russia for her election loss and called her political opponents “Putin’s puppet” and a “favorite of the Russians,” that may have played an instrumental role. Steele’s information-gathering might have ceased by May 2016 if her campaign and the DNC hadn’t decided to continue funding it, giving Russian intelligence the opening to successfully spread disinformation into the United States.
This latest release should provoke soul-searching among the media, lest they repeat the same mistake in future. But don’t hold your breath. Besides a few reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and CBS, the bombshell has so far had a muted impact everywhere but, predictably, in the right-wing press. Establishment media have again and again proven themselves willing marks for disinformation campaigns cooked up by spy agencies, both foreign and domestic; it looks like all we can do is wait and see what form the next one takes.