just asking questions

‘The Steele Dossier Was a Case Study in How Reporters Get Manipulated’

Christopher Steele, unreliable narrator. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

To pick the worst press failure of the past half-decade would be a daunting assignment, but the coverage of the Steele dossier would have to be high on any list. The document, penned by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was commissioned in 2016 by the private research firm Fusion GPS, in turn working for the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. The aim was to dig up dirt on Donald Trump, especially regarding any ties he might have to Russia. Steele delivered, alleging a long-standing conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin and offering details that proved to be as unfounded as they were spectacular: a meeting in Prague between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian officials in 2016, a collaboration between Trump and Moscow to hack the emails of the Democratic National Committee, and, most infamously, a surveillance video of Trump cavorting with prostitutes at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow (a.k.a. “the pee tape). Although they were almost certainly specious, these claims spawned countless news stories — including at New York — and prompted government investigations into possible ties between Moscow and Trump.

The Steele dossier is just one recent instance of the media presenting the public with information that originated in a vast and opaque industry of private spies and operatives for hire who do business without all the rules and ethics of traditional media outlets, but who often inject their version of events into the mainstream press by feeding tips and scoops to reporters. It is this phenomenon, and in particular the journalistic failures surrounding the Steele dossier, that inspired New York Times veteran Barry Meier to produce his latest book, Spooked, a lively and readable examination of some of the mischief wrought by the business of private spies. There are entertaining sections about the Panama Papers, the Israeli firm Black Cube — famously retained by Harvey Weinstein to investigate his accusers — and the U.S. firm K2 Intelligence, but the star of the show is Fusion GPS, founded by onetime Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, two figures who in Meier’s telling lose their ethical bearings without noticing it. Meier recently spoke over FaceTime about spooks, Rachel Maddow, and the difficult question of how reporters should guard themselves against being dupes in an unseen game.

When we were setting this up and you asked offhand who my editor was, I thought, Is that because he’s worried I might be a spy? Or is his book making me paranoid about whether he’s worried I’m a spy? 

When I was first reporting the book, I knew I wanted to talk to political activist and financier Bill Browder. He got back to me, and he wanted all kinds of identification because he was concerned that maybe I was working with Fusion GPS. So my level of paranoia has not gotten to that point yet, but I do tend to go through a little bit of a screening process.

Did this book change you in general? 

Well, probably less than it should have, but it made me more aware of the ruses that people use when they want to get close to you. Ian Withers, who is a crusty old British private eye you meet at the beginning of the book, when we were out hunting for Christopher Steele, told me that spies will approach you in all kinds of different ways, and a lot of times the approach will be very indirect. Like someone might write me and say, “Hey, Barry, I hear you’re a Mets fan. Funny thing: I’m one too. How do you think that the team is doing this year?” And I’ll think, Oh, another Mets fan. Let me talk to this lost soul. But they’re just using it as a way to get you to lower your guard.

Did you worry about being spied upon yourself when you were doing your own reporting for this book? 

Probably less than I should have. Everyone who I encountered said to me,
“You’ve got to be really careful. People will try to hack your email. People are going to try to hack your computer. People are going to try to follow you.” But my initial sense of terror subsided.

What do you think accounts for its having subsided? 

Now, it’s being done with the book, No. 1, and disengaging with that world. It’s a really weird world, and it’s filled with strange, strange characters. I went to one of those people, and I showed him emails showing that the person who supposedly was working for him, one private operative, was actually working against him. He was sort of like, “Meh, he’s a nice guy.” And I thought, This is crazy. That’s your reaction to this? And then I realized, Well, that’s fair, because this guy has been playing both sides of the street also. So, for him, it’s probably not that surprising.

It’s just business. 

It’s just business. It’s not about animus or revenge or anything like that. It’s like: Okay, I worked for this guy one time. I don’t work for him now. Now he’s a target.

In those cases, we are talking about, literally, spy versus spy, or rascal versus rascal. Once you get out of that private espionage world, are there innocent people getting hurt by it? 

Clearly. In the case of Black Cube, for example, there were these women who were victims of Harvey Weinstein who then became victims again because they were targets of Black Cube. And the whole agenda here was to take people with credible allegations of assault against this horrible producer and smear them and force them to go through public humiliation in order to achieve some measure of justice. So, yes, when these people are battling among themselves, who really gives a shit what happens to them? But there are also people who become their prey and often their victims.

Even in the case of the Steele dossier, I think it’s fair to say that, whatever people think of Donald Trump, there were several bit players who got quite damaged by it — people no one had heard of, like Belarus-born businessman Sergei Millian or Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page. 

Yes, people like Carter Page suffered some fallout from the Steele dossier. I think I see the public as a much bigger victim. I mean, I would not have devoted as much time to the dossier as I did unless I thought there was a larger social, public ramification to it. And to me, what the dossier came to represent was how the work of these private operatives is subsumed into a hyperpartisan media and becomes this narrative that half of the public believes and half of the public doesn’t believe.

You point to a lot of lapses of reporting on Christopher Steele and the dossier, such as the McClatchy story placing Michael Cohen’s cell-phone signal in Prague and the Guardian story about a meeting between Paul Manafort and Julian Assange. Have any fellow journalists responded?

Not specifically. People who got it wrong are not really raising their head over the parapet at this point and saying, “Yeah, I got it wrong and here’s why I got it wrong.” But my purpose in writing was not to point to specific journalists and say, “You! Stand up against the wall! It’s time to confess!” It was really to point out that we as journalists — and I still very much consider myself as a journalist — need to reassess how we engage with hired spies and private operatives. I mean, [the Steele-dossier reporting] was a travesty. It is our job and it’s always been our job as journalists to scrutinize information. And that didn’t happen here. People jumped onto this train for a variety of reasons, be it political, professional, emotional, or what have you, and it ran straight into a wall.

When it comes to journalistic sins, do you see a meaningful difference in feeding private-spy information into a narrative and feeding government-spy information into a narrative? There have been a lot of intelligence leaks that have not panned out but were headline stories. Are those any less of a risk?

I think we have to be very scrupulous about identifying to the public where information is coming from. There’s a lot going on behind the curtain that the public is unaware of. And as journalists, we kind of go, “Well, trust us, we’re good. You don’t need to know about how the sausage is made, because we’re presenting you with this lovely meal.” But why are we continuing to operate that way?

During the Trump years, the news was awash in a constant flow of leaked allegations from murky places.  You didn’t know who the source was, and you didn’t know whether it was true, and you didn’t know why the source might be leaking. 

You see this type of misdirection or obfuscation taking place across the entire media spectrum. And a real driving force for me in writing the book was taking on the Steele dossier as a case study in how reporters can get manipulated or allow themselves to be manipulated and the havoc that results from that. When I was reporting about the drug OxyContin and the Sackler family, and this is going back almost 20 years, Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin, was pointing to three studies that it claimed showed that OxyContin could be used at extremely high doses for very long periods of time without any risk of addiction or ill effects. And these three studies were constantly being parroted in the media. And I just thought to myself: What are these studies saying? And they turned out to be three obscure studies that I had to go to the National Library of Medicine to dig out that had nothing to do with the long-term use or safety of opioids. It’s like the same thing happened with the Steele dossier. No one went back and scrutinized Christopher Steele. No one went back and scrutinized Fusion GPS.

And when we get a look behind the curtain, such as when intelligence sources and methods have been revealed to the public, what has usually been shocking is not how great they are but how shoddy they are.

It’s an eye-opener. This whole arena of intelligence and intelligence reporting is probably the most difficult one for a journalist to venture into. In a case like a story about a drug or medical device, there is tangible evidence that you can seek out, like adverse-reaction reports that the government gets. When you step into the world of intelligence, you’re walking into this gray, murky arena where none of that tangible evidence exists and your information really is only as good as your sources. And I think that’s why there have been innumerable screwups in the past, the most notable one being the WMD situation — people relying on people and people relying on people. I think when you go into this realm of private intelligence, there may not be a governmental agenda, but now you have corporate agendas, profit agendas, and a whole mix of other agendas where information is being pulled together often from very questionable sources and ginned up to make it look like it’s credible.

And presumably, if you’ve been hired to do oppo research, as Fusion GPS was, you don’t want to come up dry. You don’t get $100,000 to say, “He looks fine to me!”

Right. But there was plenty of oppo research to be done on Donald Trump. That wasn’t a hard assignment. There was also a legitimate and great concern that the Russians were trying to influence the election on Trump’s behalf and particularly against Hillary Clinton. There’s also no debate that Trump, his son, and others welcomed the interference of the Russians and that there were some bad people working for the Trump campaign, like Paul Manafort, who was a class-A sleazeball. But then that wasn’t enough, apparently. So what became the next step in this was the dossier, which alleged conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Absent the dossier, the conspiracy theory doesn’t have the juice it needs to really take over the press or even government investigators. 

It’s the dossier that fueled it all. I mean, Christopher Steele, Glenn Simpson, and Peter Fritsch, who were the three principal authors or marketers of the dossier, may very well have believed that there was a conspiracy between Donald Trump and the Kremlin. Fine. God bless them. But that doesn’t mean that anyone else had to believe it.

Do you feel that the government misbehaved in its response to Steele dossier? 

It seems to me that the major faux pas that the government made was in using material from the Steele dossier, in particular Yahoo News journalist Mike Isikoff’s articles, to seek the FISA warrant for surveillance on Carter Page. And then subsequently it comes out that there was an FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, who misstated some information, and that was also very troubling. I have to say that in my earlier book Missing Men, I dealt a lot with the FBI, because the central character in that book is a former FBI agent, and initially the FBI was charged with trying to find him. I had grown up with Jack Webb as Joe Friday, and the FBI, they knew how to do everything. I would say that three or four months into reporting for Missing Man, I thought, These guys are a bunch of mopes! They are okay when they are delivered information on a silver platter, but when they have to go out and dig it up themselves, they’re pretty hopeless. I mean, these people would not last a week at the New York Times. So when I see people like that being introduced on CNN or MSNBC or FOX, I think to myself: Big fucking deal. Why should I take their word for anything?

You’ve obviously had a distinguished and successful career at the New York Times. How much did you pull your punches toward the Times in the book? 

That’s sort of a trick question. [Laughs.] I tried to deal with the Times in the same way I was dealing with the other major publications, like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. If I have a major criticism of the Times, it was they could have, I believe should have, done a major scrub of Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch and of Fusion GPS early in the game after the dossier came out. It was the perfect opportunity to say: Here are these three people, the creators of the work of the dossier that’s all over the news. We’re not gonna tell our readers we believe that dossier, but we can sure as hell tell our readers everything that we can find out about these three people, their reliability, their careers, and the clients they work for. It came out subsequently, for example, that one of Christopher Steele’s clients was the lawyer of Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who was closely tied to Vladimir Putin. Does that mean that everything in the dossier was wrong? No, but it does mean the public should have known that early on.

One way to avoid such sins could presumably be to give journalists a bigger incentive to get it right. But it seems like many of the journalists who got it most wrong did the best. People like Rachel Maddow and the Guardian’s Luke Harding seem to have paid no price for their failings. 

Yeah, I’ve noticed in my career that there are all kinds of journalists. Myself, when I made a mistake, like misspelling something, I would feel horrible for a few days. But then there are other people, and I don’t know whether Rachel Maddow and Luke Harding fall into this category, who have these incredible carapaces, right? Any criticism, any scrutiny, just kind of bounces off of them. There’s a phenomenal exchange that Rachel Maddow had with Michael Isikoff, who was probably one of the few reporters who publicly acknowledged that he had bit too quickly on the dossier story, in which he is asking her, “Well, do you think you bought into it too much?” And she reacts with a defensive ferocity that is quite startling to behold.

She implied he was a creep, if I recall. 

Exactly. It’s like: Whoa, okay!

If you don’t mind, I’m going to revisit this question of leaks from government intelligence. I’m not trying to pick on the New York Times over other newspapers, but the dubious story about Russian bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan comes to mind as a recent example. I worry as a citizen that the same things that got journalists to bite on the Steele dossier will get them to bite on even more dangerous things. Do you think this is a major challenge going forward?

Again, the area of reporting on government intelligence is probably the most fraught area that a journalist can be assigned to cover. I don’t know how people do it. There have been some real revelations. There have been some real screwups as well. I’m struggling to imagine what the checklist is that a reporter or editor at the Washington Post or the New York Times or any other major publication goes through to assure themselves that they’re not getting played. It’s just one of those things where no one is going to have a perfect batting average. I don’t think news organizations can stand down from doing that kind of reporting, but hopefully people keep insisting on a higher standard of proof before they decide to go with the next story.

You have a chapter about the unmasking of Steele’s primary source, who turns out to be a man named Igor Danchenko, someone with very few connections to Kremlin officials in real life. This came about thanks to the research of a team of people you dub the “internet sleuths.” I have often found their work to be impressive, and, when I had arrived at a theory of the case about Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, after months of reporting, I found that one of these sleuths, Hans Mahncke, had already put the same theory together months earlier. How do you feel about such sleuths as resources for journalists?

I wrote about the sleuths because I, too, I was impressed by them (although they feel I didn’t give them enough credit in the book). I think they do provide a service. I would be very leery as a journalist about embracing them. Most of them really do have a political agenda, and they’re not bound by the kind of rules of engagement that journalists are bound by. It’s probably just as good for us to do our thing for them to do their thing and for us to learn from them how they do their thing.

That’s arguably one of the lessons of your book: Embrace no one and dismiss no one. A lot of journalists these days seem to dismiss or embrace a given source but can’t figure out how to do neither. 

To put it another way, journalists too often see some people as their friends and other people as their enemies. And that’s a big mistake. Because sometimes your friends are not worthy of your trust, and when you allow these kinds of relationships and emotions to get involved, they can cloud things over. I mean, it’s not surprising that the Steele dossier — even though a former British intelligence agent wrote it — really was a product of the Washington swamp. And if any journalist thinks that any creature that inhabits this swamp is their buddy, they should step back and think again.