Just How Reliable Was Christopher Steele?

The famous "dossier" on Donald Trump – supposedly compiled by British ex-MI6 spook Christopher Steele, acting as a contractor for Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS, themselves contractors for the Hillary Clinton campaign – "salacious and unverified" though it might have been, was "crucial" to the FBI's efforts to obtain the original FISA on Carter Page as well as the three renewals of that FISA.  That the "dossier" was "salacious and unverified" we have on the authority of disgraced former FBI director James Comey, and that it was "crucial" to the Carter Page FISA is attested by the equally disgraced former deputy director and later acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe.

In the Carter Page FISA application, the FBI presents material from the "dossier" without referencing it as an actual document.  Rather, it presents material from the "dossier" as reporting provided by Christopher Steele as "Source #1."  The concealing of source identities is usual in FISA applications.  To make up for this secrecy in the interest of security, at least in theory, the FBI provides characterizations of its sources as well as specific facts that vouch for the reliability of the sources in question, to provide the FISC judge with a factual basis upon which to assess the case for granting a FISA order.

Since we know the person who is supposed to have been behind the Carter Page FISA application, it seems reasonable to inquire: just how reliable was Christopher Steele?  After all, if verification of the dossier was still "in its infancy" – i.e., it basically hadn't been verified at all – at the time the FISA application was submitted to the FISC, according to the FBI's top counter-intelligence official, Bill Priestap, then it follows that the reliability of the material presented in the application would stand or fall with the reliability of the source.  So what does the FBI say in the application about Steele's reliability as a source?

The application, as released to the public, is heavily redacted, but on p. 15, at the point that the application first begins citing "information" gained from Steele:

First, according to information provided by an FBI confidential human source (Source #1)[footnote 8] ...

...we read in footnote 8 – between redactions – that Steele has been used as a source in the past.  Addressing the issue of reliability, footnote 8 goes on to state:

[footnote 8] Source #1's reporting has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings and the FBI assesses Source #1 to be reliable.

Note several things here.  First, Steele is characterized as a "confidential human source" who has provided "reporting" that has been "used in criminal proceedings."  This characterization was no doubt calculated to appeal to a judge's way of thinking.  A judge might assume from the title "confidential human source" that Steele was "reporting" regarding matters concerning which he has personal knowledge, and the fact that his "reporting" was used in "criminal proceedings" would also strengthen the tendency of a judge to view the "reporting" as probably reliable.

But notice, too, how essentially threadbare this characterization is.  We see nothing here about how Steele's "reporting" was "corroborated" – was it corroborated by other sources, by subsequent investigation by the FBI?  We're not told, although such additional information is often added and could reasonably be requested by a judge.  Nor are we told just how important the "reporting" was to the criminal proceedings or even what the criminal proceedings involved.  Was it central to the proceedings, was it important in gaining convictions or guilty pleas – or was it peripheral?  When you get right down to it, the FBI's characterization of Steele's reliability means pretty much whatever you want it to mean.  A skeptical judge might question it, but, then again, what reason would a judge have to question the judgment of all the high-level executives in the FBI and DoJ who signed off on the application?

That the FBI and DoJ signed off on such a sketchy FISA package – especially in the context of electronic surveillance closely affecting a U.S. presidential campaign – and that the FISC authorized the FISA, not once, not twice, not three times, but four times, is alarming.  I submit that it's cause for alarm regarding the security of our rights as American citizens to be safeguarded from unreasonable searches and seizures as well as regarding the integrity of our elections.

But let's play devil's advocate.  The FBI didn't tell the judge, but we know that the "criminal proceedings" the FBI was referring to had to do with the FIFA corruption case.

Here's the Wikipedia account of Steele's involvement in the FIFA case (emphases added throughout):

FIFA research

In 2010, The Football Association (FA), England's domestic football governing body, organized a committee in hopes of hosting the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. The FA hired Steele's company to investigate FIFA (International Federation of Association Football). In advance of the FBI launching its 2015 FIFA corruption case, members of the FBI's Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force met with Steele in London to discuss allegations of possible corruption in FIFA. Steele's research indicated that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin had rigged the bidding of the 2018 World Cups by employing bribery. [1]

Note that in Wikipedia, Steele's "reporting" has become "research."  That means that Steele, the Great Russia Expert from MI6 who hadn't been in Russia since 1993, may have concocted his findings by checking standard internet sources.  That's no knock on internet research, but it's an indication of just how tendentious his claim regarding Russian bribery may have been.  Is that unfair, to compare a Wikipedia article to the FBI's presentation?  I say no.  The FBI had its opportunity to pump up Steele's credibility – on four separate occasions.  Note, too, in this regard that Steele's "research ... indicated" that Sechin engaged in bribery.  We see here the same vagueness we found in the FBI's presentation in the FISA application itself regarding "corroboration" of Steele's "reporting."

Do we have any indications of what "indications" Steele drew upon to reach his conclusion?  As it happens, footnote 1 at Wikipedia is a reference to Jane Mayer's lengthy New Yorker article (3/12/18), "Christopher Steele: The Man Behind The Trump Dossier."  Mayer offers what detail is available in that regard, having seemingly spoken with only Steele supporters:

England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes.  According to Ken Bensinger's "Red Card," an upcoming book about the scandal, "one of Steele's best sources" informed him that the Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin – now the C.E.O. of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft – is suspected of having travelled to Qatar "to swap World Cup votes."

So "one of Steele's best sources" informed him.  How good was that "best source"?  Recall: in 2010, it was seventeen years since Steele had been in Russia.  This "best source" informed Steele that Igor Sechin was "suspected" of the alleged bribery.  If you question that suspicion, Steele has a ready answer:

"Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities." He added, "Don't expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin's signature saying 'Please, X, bribe Y with this amount in this way.'  He's not going to do that."

That's not exactly conclusive – as Steele himself admits.  But, you might ask, what about the use of this "reporting" in "criminal proceedings"?  Again, Mayer:

Steele introduced him [FBI agent Michael Gaeta] to his sources, who proved essential to the ensuing investigation.  In 2015, the Justice Department indicted fourteen people in connection with a hundred and fifty million dollars in bribes and kickbacks.  One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top FIFA official who had embezzled a fortune from the organization and became an informant for the F.B.I. Blazer had an eighteen-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump's residence.

How many of those indicted people were Russians?  None.  And yet wasn't Russia supposed to be at the center of this conspiracy to bring the World Cup to Russia?  Didn't the corrupt Chuck Blazer, whose corruption went back decades and who became an informant for the FBI, spill the beans on Igor Sechin?  Apparently not – my "research" reveals no allegations that Blazer conspired with the Russians, nor that he received money from Russia.  Nor is there any evidence of Trump being involved with FIFA in any way before being elected president.

One is left with the suspicion that Steele was telling the FBI what it wanted to hear – then as also during the 2016 election.  Indeed, Mayer notes:

Nobody had alleged that Trump knew of any FIFA crimes, but Steele soon came across Trump Tower again.  Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov.  The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower.  Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes.  Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive.  Interpol issued a "red notice" calling for his arrest.  But, in the fall of 2013, he showed up at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow – and sat near the pageant's owner, Donald Trump.

"It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower," Steele told friends.

Again, pretty threadbare stuff.  What does it say about the reliability of Steele's reporting?  Does Steele's allegation, "[i]t was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower," suggest a balanced weighing of evidence?  Mayer accepts and passes on that statement uncritically, but does it suggest that Steele is the sort of person whose reliability can be accepted for purposes of initiating electronic surveillance on a presidential campaign?  Consider: nobody alleged that Trump knew anything about the FIFA corruption, but...a corrupt FIFA official and a Russian organized crime figure (with no connection to FIFA) both had apartments in Trump Tower.  And that's supposed to mean that "all criminal roads led to Trump Tower"?  And as icing on that bizarrely confected cake, a Russian criminal "sat near" Donald Trump – in Moscow, no less!

A fair reading of the evidence can only lead to the conclusion that Steele's reliability was highly suspect.  I say that based only on the FBI's own assertions in its FISA application(s) – not dragging in any of Steele's personal baggage, such as his involvement in questionable left-wing movements.  That Steele as a source was presented as reliable by the FBI and DoJ to the FISC speaks volumes regarding the corruption of those two institutions under the Obama administration.  It also speaks to the inherent flaws in the FISA regime as such, which I addressed earlier in "What the Carter Page Case Tells Us about the Flaws In FISA."  One of the aspects of the FBI-DoJ stonewalling and delaying tactics that I find most reprehensible in this whole Russian hoax farago is that it has delayed a much needed public debate on the entire FISA regime.

Mark Wauck, a retired FBI agent, blogs on philosophy, religion, and FISA at meaning in history.

The famous "dossier" on Donald Trump – supposedly compiled by British ex-MI6 spook Christopher Steele, acting as a contractor for Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS, themselves contractors for the Hillary Clinton campaign – "salacious and unverified" though it might have been, was "crucial" to the FBI's efforts to obtain the original FISA on Carter Page as well as the three renewals of that FISA.  That the "dossier" was "salacious and unverified" we have on the authority of disgraced former FBI director James Comey, and that it was "crucial" to the Carter Page FISA is attested by the equally disgraced former deputy director and later acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe.

In the Carter Page FISA application, the FBI presents material from the "dossier" without referencing it as an actual document.  Rather, it presents material from the "dossier" as reporting provided by Christopher Steele as "Source #1."  The concealing of source identities is usual in FISA applications.  To make up for this secrecy in the interest of security, at least in theory, the FBI provides characterizations of its sources as well as specific facts that vouch for the reliability of the sources in question, to provide the FISC judge with a factual basis upon which to assess the case for granting a FISA order.

Since we know the person who is supposed to have been behind the Carter Page FISA application, it seems reasonable to inquire: just how reliable was Christopher Steele?  After all, if verification of the dossier was still "in its infancy" – i.e., it basically hadn't been verified at all – at the time the FISA application was submitted to the FISC, according to the FBI's top counter-intelligence official, Bill Priestap, then it follows that the reliability of the material presented in the application would stand or fall with the reliability of the source.  So what does the FBI say in the application about Steele's reliability as a source?

The application, as released to the public, is heavily redacted, but on p. 15, at the point that the application first begins citing "information" gained from Steele:

First, according to information provided by an FBI confidential human source (Source #1)[footnote 8] ...

...we read in footnote 8 – between redactions – that Steele has been used as a source in the past.  Addressing the issue of reliability, footnote 8 goes on to state:

[footnote 8] Source #1's reporting has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings and the FBI assesses Source #1 to be reliable.

Note several things here.  First, Steele is characterized as a "confidential human source" who has provided "reporting" that has been "used in criminal proceedings."  This characterization was no doubt calculated to appeal to a judge's way of thinking.  A judge might assume from the title "confidential human source" that Steele was "reporting" regarding matters concerning which he has personal knowledge, and the fact that his "reporting" was used in "criminal proceedings" would also strengthen the tendency of a judge to view the "reporting" as probably reliable.

But notice, too, how essentially threadbare this characterization is.  We see nothing here about how Steele's "reporting" was "corroborated" – was it corroborated by other sources, by subsequent investigation by the FBI?  We're not told, although such additional information is often added and could reasonably be requested by a judge.  Nor are we told just how important the "reporting" was to the criminal proceedings or even what the criminal proceedings involved.  Was it central to the proceedings, was it important in gaining convictions or guilty pleas – or was it peripheral?  When you get right down to it, the FBI's characterization of Steele's reliability means pretty much whatever you want it to mean.  A skeptical judge might question it, but, then again, what reason would a judge have to question the judgment of all the high-level executives in the FBI and DoJ who signed off on the application?

That the FBI and DoJ signed off on such a sketchy FISA package – especially in the context of electronic surveillance closely affecting a U.S. presidential campaign – and that the FISC authorized the FISA, not once, not twice, not three times, but four times, is alarming.  I submit that it's cause for alarm regarding the security of our rights as American citizens to be safeguarded from unreasonable searches and seizures as well as regarding the integrity of our elections.

But let's play devil's advocate.  The FBI didn't tell the judge, but we know that the "criminal proceedings" the FBI was referring to had to do with the FIFA corruption case.

Here's the Wikipedia account of Steele's involvement in the FIFA case (emphases added throughout):

FIFA research

In 2010, The Football Association (FA), England's domestic football governing body, organized a committee in hopes of hosting the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. The FA hired Steele's company to investigate FIFA (International Federation of Association Football). In advance of the FBI launching its 2015 FIFA corruption case, members of the FBI's Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force met with Steele in London to discuss allegations of possible corruption in FIFA. Steele's research indicated that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin had rigged the bidding of the 2018 World Cups by employing bribery. [1]

Note that in Wikipedia, Steele's "reporting" has become "research."  That means that Steele, the Great Russia Expert from MI6 who hadn't been in Russia since 1993, may have concocted his findings by checking standard internet sources.  That's no knock on internet research, but it's an indication of just how tendentious his claim regarding Russian bribery may have been.  Is that unfair, to compare a Wikipedia article to the FBI's presentation?  I say no.  The FBI had its opportunity to pump up Steele's credibility – on four separate occasions.  Note, too, in this regard that Steele's "research ... indicated" that Sechin engaged in bribery.  We see here the same vagueness we found in the FBI's presentation in the FISA application itself regarding "corroboration" of Steele's "reporting."

Do we have any indications of what "indications" Steele drew upon to reach his conclusion?  As it happens, footnote 1 at Wikipedia is a reference to Jane Mayer's lengthy New Yorker article (3/12/18), "Christopher Steele: The Man Behind The Trump Dossier."  Mayer offers what detail is available in that regard, having seemingly spoken with only Steele supporters:

England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes.  According to Ken Bensinger's "Red Card," an upcoming book about the scandal, "one of Steele's best sources" informed him that the Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin – now the C.E.O. of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft – is suspected of having travelled to Qatar "to swap World Cup votes."

So "one of Steele's best sources" informed him.  How good was that "best source"?  Recall: in 2010, it was seventeen years since Steele had been in Russia.  This "best source" informed Steele that Igor Sechin was "suspected" of the alleged bribery.  If you question that suspicion, Steele has a ready answer:

"Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities." He added, "Don't expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin's signature saying 'Please, X, bribe Y with this amount in this way.'  He's not going to do that."

That's not exactly conclusive – as Steele himself admits.  But, you might ask, what about the use of this "reporting" in "criminal proceedings"?  Again, Mayer:

Steele introduced him [FBI agent Michael Gaeta] to his sources, who proved essential to the ensuing investigation.  In 2015, the Justice Department indicted fourteen people in connection with a hundred and fifty million dollars in bribes and kickbacks.  One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top FIFA official who had embezzled a fortune from the organization and became an informant for the F.B.I. Blazer had an eighteen-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump's residence.

How many of those indicted people were Russians?  None.  And yet wasn't Russia supposed to be at the center of this conspiracy to bring the World Cup to Russia?  Didn't the corrupt Chuck Blazer, whose corruption went back decades and who became an informant for the FBI, spill the beans on Igor Sechin?  Apparently not – my "research" reveals no allegations that Blazer conspired with the Russians, nor that he received money from Russia.  Nor is there any evidence of Trump being involved with FIFA in any way before being elected president.

One is left with the suspicion that Steele was telling the FBI what it wanted to hear – then as also during the 2016 election.  Indeed, Mayer notes:

Nobody had alleged that Trump knew of any FIFA crimes, but Steele soon came across Trump Tower again.  Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov.  The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower.  Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes.  Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive.  Interpol issued a "red notice" calling for his arrest.  But, in the fall of 2013, he showed up at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow – and sat near the pageant's owner, Donald Trump.

"It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower," Steele told friends.

Again, pretty threadbare stuff.  What does it say about the reliability of Steele's reporting?  Does Steele's allegation, "[i]t was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower," suggest a balanced weighing of evidence?  Mayer accepts and passes on that statement uncritically, but does it suggest that Steele is the sort of person whose reliability can be accepted for purposes of initiating electronic surveillance on a presidential campaign?  Consider: nobody alleged that Trump knew anything about the FIFA corruption, but...a corrupt FIFA official and a Russian organized crime figure (with no connection to FIFA) both had apartments in Trump Tower.  And that's supposed to mean that "all criminal roads led to Trump Tower"?  And as icing on that bizarrely confected cake, a Russian criminal "sat near" Donald Trump – in Moscow, no less!

A fair reading of the evidence can only lead to the conclusion that Steele's reliability was highly suspect.  I say that based only on the FBI's own assertions in its FISA application(s) – not dragging in any of Steele's personal baggage, such as his involvement in questionable left-wing movements.  That Steele as a source was presented as reliable by the FBI and DoJ to the FISC speaks volumes regarding the corruption of those two institutions under the Obama administration.  It also speaks to the inherent flaws in the FISA regime as such, which I addressed earlier in "What the Carter Page Case Tells Us about the Flaws In FISA."  One of the aspects of the FBI-DoJ stonewalling and delaying tactics that I find most reprehensible in this whole Russian hoax farago is that it has delayed a much needed public debate on the entire FISA regime.

Mark Wauck, a retired FBI agent, blogs on philosophy, religion, and FISA at meaning in history.