FIVE YEARS AGO this week, Christopher Steele—the retired MI6 intelligence officer turned director and co-founder of Orbis Business Intelligence—submitted the first of his intelligence reports to Fusion GPS, his U.S. client. His task was to determine if there were any ties between then-candidate Donald John Trump and Russia.
What he’d already determined, as he typed up that initial report the third week of June 2016, is that the answer was an unequivocal YES. But what Steele did not anticipate was that the Trump/Russia job would make him famous—and change the very course of history.
The series of intelligence reports he submitted from June to December 2016—collectively known as “the Steele dossier”—painted a terrifying picture of Trump as working with the Russians, if not outright working for them. Donald Trump, Manchurian Candidate? The prospect was so unthinkable that, initially, it was largely dismissed in Beltway circles as tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory.
“Back in 2016, no one knew this,” Arthur Snell told me on this week’s PREVAIL podcast. “Possibly one or two people deep within the Intelligence Community, but no one in the public world knew this.” Snell, a former British diplomat who served in Africa and the Middle East, is a managing partner at Orbis, and had a front-row seat as the events unfolded.
Christopher Steele became so concerned about the national security implications of his findings that he tried to get the dossier into the hands of Senator John McCain, as well as the FBI. This did not happen until relatively late in the process, a few weeks before the 2016 election, although Trump and the MAGA Republicans continue to disseminate the lie that the dossier compelled the Bureau to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign. (In fact, not-so-useful idiot George Papadopoulos and his big drunk mouth did that). He also tried to interest the press in the story, but the only reporters who would touch it worked for smaller publications like Mother Jones and Yahoo! News.
Documents solely intended for a small, specific, sophisticated readership wound up making headlines the world over when BuzzFeed News unceremoniously released the full dossier on January 10, 2017—without the permission of Orbis or of Steele himself, who knew doing so might jeopardize the safety of his sources. (Ben Smith, then BuzzFeed’s editor, likes to present himself as some sort of pro-transparency hero for doing this, although I’ve heard that the decision to dump the full document was far messier than he’d have us believe). Probably to cover its ass legally, BuzzFeed characterized the dossier as “unverified,” a designation almost immediately weaponized by Trump and his minions, who denounced the whole thing as “fake news.”
This was easy to accomplish, because most members of the press, to say nothing of the American reading public, have no idea what an intelligence report is—that it is not to be confused with, say, a hard news article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Steele was dutifully noting anything he discovered, rumor or otherwise, that he deemed potentially credible, and passing it along. The dossier was never meant to be read as a final draft.
Worse, the mainstream media is congenitally incapable of resisting the temptation of a shiny object—especially when said shiny object is a glistening stream of urine. Yes, the rumor of Trump and his third wife, Melania, watching a team of Muscovite hookers tinkle on a hotel bed is lurid, but from a national security standpoint, it pales in comparison to the subsequent contents of the dossier. The point of that salacious tidbit is that the Russians had kompromat on Trump. That’s what Steele was trying to warn us about. But all we read about in the press was the “pee-pee tape.”
Five years later, we can confirm that the Steele dossier, “verified” or otherwise, pretty much nailed the big picture. As Snell told me, the four most important overarching observations in the intelligence reports turned out to be, alas, all too true. Namely:
1/ The Russians interfered in the 2016 election.
2/ The interference occurred at Putin’s direction.
3/ The interference was intended to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
4/ Individuals in the Trump campaign—most notably Paul Manafort—were, in fact, coordinating with individuals in Moscow to achieve this aim.
“There has been an extraordinary effort to discredit this work, to suggest that what Orbis did was itself Russian disinformation, which is completely untrue,” Snell says. “What I would say is that back in 2016—if we could all get in a time machine and go back there—if we would be told those four facts, you know, you’d fall off your chair. You wouldn’t believe it was possible. And it’s only what’s happened since then that’s changed the way we look at those things.”
For the sin of telling the truth, Steele was put through the wringer by Trump and his collaborators. At one point, he was forced to go into hiding. Steele, Snell explains, “is definitely not somebody who is interested in cheap media, showbiz politics. Something that is very unfortunate about the events of the Trump era is the attempt to try to paint him as a kind of political hack, as a partisan operative.” Nothing could be further from the truth—but then, MAGA does not deal in truth. Steele was also included on the Russian “kill list” circulated in March by Trump’s whoremaster Vladimir Putin—which would seem unnecessary, if the assertions in the dossier were actually “fake news.”
This is an enormous price to pay for trying to protect American democracy.
The dossier did not compel the FBI to open an investigation—that false narrative is Kremlin deza—but it did serve to hip the American people to the fact that Donald John Trump was compromised, if not entirely owned, by Putin’s Russia. Steele saying so made it more viable for the rest of us to say so. It’s one thing when a middling novelist cries “Trump-Russia,” quite another when the same warning comes from the former head of the MI6 Russia desk.
“Nobody at Orbis, and certainly not Chris Steele, ever would dream of doing something to damage the United States,” Snell says. “His objective was always to protect the United States, and I think that ultimately, history will judge him as having done that.”
I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, Christopher Steele, a British national, is more devoted to protecting the United States than our former president, his advisors and cabinet members, and almost every sitting Republican lawmaker. Five years on, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
Description: In his career with the British Foreign Office, Arthur Snell was posted to some of the most consequential, and dangerous, places in the world: Zimbabwe, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq. He’s now a managing director of Orbis Business Intelligence, where his colleague is Christopher Steele. In this discussion, Greg Olear talks to Arthur about, first, the current British political scene in general, with an emphasis on BREXIT and Russian interference; second, his remarkable career, and his view on Afghanistan and Iraq; and, finally, Orbis, Chris Steele, and the dossier. Plus: the return of Jeffrey Toobin to your TV screen.
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