Mistakes like relying on Steele and his atrocious reporting must not be repeated
By Daniel N. HOFFMAN
Recently declassified notes of an FBI meeting in 2017 with former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele and his Orbis Business Intelligence partner Christopher Burrows add to the growing mountain of evidence discrediting Mr. Steele’s infamous dossier — a virulent, self-injected virus in the U.S. political process.
According to the FBI, Mr. Steele said it was Fiona Hill, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the Trump White House’s National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, who introduced him to his primary sub-source for the dossier, Igor Danchenko.
Mr. Steele tried to spin the story that insinuated Ms. Hill knew and approved of Mr. Danchenko’s role in compiling the salacious dossier, a work product that amounted to a major hit job on then-candidate Donald Trump. A distinguished senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a book on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s espionage back story, Ms. Hill is a preeminent expert on Russia. Mr. Steele was apparently trying to trade on her impeccable credentials to enhance the perceived veracity of his reporting.
In early 2017, Mr. Steele claimed Ms. Hill “probably guesses” that Mr. Danchenko was involved in the compilation of the dossier. But as an ex-spy himself, Mr. Steele should have known better than to make such unsubstantiated claims about Ms. Hill.
Russians have a saying, “One’s own shirt is closest to one’s skin.” In retrospect, it was clear Mr. Steele was being duplicitous.
In 2011, years before Fusion GPS hired Mr. Steele to conduct opposition research on Mr. Trump, Ms. Hill introduced Mr. Steele to Mr. Danchenko, a proficient Russian analyst who also worked at Brookings. There is no evidence Mr. Steele or Mr. Danchenko ever revealed to Ms. Hill the specific work Mr. Danchenko would wind up doing on the dossier.
Mr. Danchenko told the Washington Examiner, “I am not aware of any third party having knowledge of any projects that I worked on in the private sector. … I never shared any details of my work with anyone, including Dr. Hill.”
In sworn testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in October 2019, Ms. Hill said she had “no knowledge whatsoever of how [Mr. Steele] developed that dossier.” Calling the dossier a “rabbit hole,” Ms. Hill rightly concluded Mr. Steele “could have been played” by the Russians.
Mr. Steele was hired to collect information on Mr. Trump’s Russian activities on behalf of the Clinton campaign. His report was packed with salacious, unproven allegations against Mr. Trump, whom Mr. Steele claimed was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate in the 2016 presidential election.
By using Mr. Danchenko to gather protected information — an assignment for which he had no training whatsoever, Mr. Steele committed what amounts to espionage malpractice. He risked doing great harm to Mr. Danchenko and the sources he recruited in Russia, who were operating in what my CIA colleagues and I referred to as the “belly of the beast” — a high counterintelligence threat environment.
In July 2020, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham released declassified FBI documents, which revealed Mr. Danchenko had admitted to the FBI that he had been in contact with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). According to the Department of Justice inspector general’s report, the FBI obtained evidence in 2017 that Russian intelligence proceeded to use Mr. Steele as a conduit for disinformation.
Mr. Steele’s modus operandi was so fraught with horrific misjudgments that it should have rendered all of his reporting unworthy of being included in any analytical product on which executive decisions would be based, most especially the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
The Steele dossier’s collateral damage stretched to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, for which Jake Sullivan, now President Biden’s national security adviser, served as a senior foreign policy aide. Based on the Steele dossier and a dubious group of cyberscientists code-named “Tea Leaves,” Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sullivan were led to believe a Russian bank’s server was a covert communication link between the Trump Organization and the Kremlin.
Then 2019 Justice Department IG’s report debunked the server theory. Even earlier, the FBI investigated and concluded by February 2017 there were no cyber links between the Trump Organization and the bank.
The Steele dossier should be a cautionary tale for intelligence professionals and policymakers in the Biden administration. Intelligence collection on nuclear proliferation, transnational terrorism and hard targets like Iran, North Korea, China and Russia is arguably more challenging and consequential than ever before.
Mistakes like relying on Mr. Steele and his atrocious reporting are for learning, not repeating. Source reporting needs to be subjected to the most rigorous oversight, especially concerning the veracity of past reporting, access to information and methods of collection. And policymakers should regularly challenge their own assumptions, avoiding any predisposed bias which risks infecting their decisions.