The Trump-Russia Dossier: Between truth & lies

Former senator Harry Reid accused FBI chief James Comey of hypocrisy. Mr Comey was unable to verify the contents of the Trump dossier. Senator John McCain went to great lengths to get a copy of the file. Mr James Clapper defended the United States' i
The media in the Belgravia area of London's West End on Thursday. The offices of Mr Christopher Steele, a former British spy believed to have produced a dossier on Mr Donald Trump, are located here.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

British spies, Russian villains and American patriots - familiar characters of a Cold War-era political thriller, except they are part of the explosive story on United States President-elect Donald Trump's once-secret file. Compiled by a veteran agent, yet hard to verify, the dossier and how it came to be shed light on politics' dirty dealings and stirred up debate on journalistic ethics. Jeremy Au Yong reports

A week before the Nov 8 presidential election last year, just when a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) bombshell about Mrs Hillary Clinton's e-mails was hogging all the headlines, then Senate minority leader Harry Reid sent a one-page letter to the bureau's chief accusing him of hypocrisy.

"The double standard established by your actions is clear," he wrote. "In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers and the Russian government - a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information."

Though the allegations from Mr Reid were serious, they drew little public attention.

Part of the reason was that the accusations were vague and difficult to verify, and part of it was simply that - in the context of the moment in the campaign - it was easily mistaken for the rantings of a bitter partisan.

Today, less than a week before the Jan 20 inauguration of billionaire Donald Trump, that letter has emerged as one of the earliest public acknowledgements of an intelligence dossier on the President- elect currently making waves in global politics.

The 35-page document contains numerous specific, albeit unverified, claims: It describes a broad conspiracy by Russia to intervene in the US elections in favour of Mr Trump; claims that members of Mr Trump's inner circle have been in close contact with the Kremlin; and alleges that Russia has lurid videos of Mr Trump taken from secret cameras placed in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton that it could use as blackmail.

And if the dossier seems to describe activity ripped out of the pages of a James Bond book, the same can be said of the story of how the dossier even came to be. It even includes a protagonist with the secret-agent-like name of "Christopher Steele".

REAL-LIFE SPY THRILLER

Mr Steele, a former officer with the British spy service MI6, is known in the intelligence community for his deep contacts in Russia and knowledge of the Kremlin. And like any good spy, he kept a low profile - the only photo of him uncovered is a grainy image of a man with tightly cropped hair wearing a tuxedo.

Mr Steele set up a private research firm named Orbis Business Intelligence in 2009. His work collecting information about Mr Trump started some time before June last year when he was hired to look into the tycoon by a Washington outfit named Fusion GPS.

 
 

Fusion GPS had been initially engaged by an anti-Trump Republican donor to do opposition research on the real estate mogul.

In an election year, such commissions are not unusual. In much the same way businesses will occasionally hire investigators to dig up dirt on a rival, it is an accepted, if not publicised, practice for presidential hopefuls to build up files on their political opponents.

Often, candidates keep researchers doing their dirty work at arm's length and hire them through intermediaries.

Such was the case for the Trump commission and it remains unknown which of his Republican rivals first initiated the effort. Whoever it was, the candidate he backed was vanquished by Mr Trump by the time Mr Steele got on the case.

The original donor now no longer needed the research, but Fusion GPS managed to find another interested client - a similarly yet-to-be- identified Democratic Party backer. Mr Steele would soon start sending memos back to his clients in Washington. But what he uncovered disturbed him enough such that he also started sending them to one of his contacts in the FBI.

"This is something of huge significance, way above party politics," he said in an interview with the magazine Mother Jones published in October last year. "I think (Trump's) own party should be aware of this stuff as well."

By August, the FBI had asked Mr Steele for everything he had as well as an explanation for how he got it.

The memos also started making their rounds in Washington. All or part of the dossier eventually found its way to the desk of Mr Reid.

Mr Reid's spokesman Adam Jentleson confirmed that the former Senate leader was talking about the dossier in his October letter to the FBI.

"...THIS IS WHAT HARRY REID WAS REFERRING TO," he tweeted in all caps last week.

Senator John McCain, in turn, went to some lengths to get a copy. According to The Guardian, an emissary of the senator took a last-minute flight to Europe for a secret meeting with a source. He was told to look out for a man holding a copy of the Financial Times.

Mr McCain would subsequently hand over the docket to FBI chief James Comey. He, just like everyone else who saw it, was unable to verify its contents.

Even though the number of people with knowledge of the dossier was increasing, it might have never come to light if not for the decision by the intelligence agencies to include a two-page summary of the allegations in their briefings to President Barack Obama and Mr Trump earlier this month.

Who leaked that two-page synopsis is unclear, but that official attention to the material was a factor in the website BuzzFeed's decision to put the entire document - unverified claims and all - online.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stressed that the intelligence agencies were not to blame for the leak and he told Mr Trump they did not make a judgment about the veracity of the claims.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Trump suggested the intelligence agencies leaked the summary and angrily dismissed the allegations as "phoney stuff".

"Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public.

"One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?" he tweeted in his inimitable style.

FLAWED BUT...

The Trump camp is correct to say that the dossier is a flawed document. For one thing, the report relies heavily on anonymous sources such as a "senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure" or a "senior Russian financial official".

Then there are the mistakes.

The Russian consortium Alfa Group is misspelt several times as the Alpha Group, while some reports suggest two different men named Michael Cohen might have been mixed up in descriptions of clandestine meetings.

But the dossier also has some things going for it.

Mr Steele is, by all accounts, a well-regarded professional and not some fly-by-night operator. He had previously worked with the FBI on an investigation into corruption in football's global governing body Fifa that ultimately toppled its chief Sepp Blatter.

That Moscow has sought to directly influence the US elections is also now broadly accepted as true within intelligence circles.

Amid all the strong denials issued during Wednesday's press conference, Mr Trump never answered a direct question about whether his team had any direct contact with Russian officials during the election.

Finally, there is the perception that Mr Trump is partial to Russia. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader on multiple occasions, and the Republican Party raised eyebrows in July when the party's manifesto was rewritten to remove mention of providing weapons to Ukraine. Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014.

One section of the dossier says the Trump team had "agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue" in return for a hack on the Democratic Party. The report does not produce any evidence and Mr Trump has repeatedly denied any conspiracy with Moscow.

Ultimately, the dossier is stuck in an uncomfortable place between questionable and plausible with little chance that the truth will ever be known.

It now hangs over the coming festivities of Mr Trump's inauguration day - another twist in an already unprecedented journey to the White House.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Between truth & lies'. Print Edition | Subscribe