DAVOS, Switzerland — The document alleging that Russian security services have a video of president-elect Donald Trump cavorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel looks like low-quality intelligence and should be treated with suspicion, according to three intelligence professionals who spoke to Business Insider in recent days.
It is impossible to verify or disprove the claims in the 35-page document published by BuzzFeed last week.
But we wanted to know why the document was taken so seriously by politicians and senior security officials in the US that they felt the need to brief Trump and Barack Obama about it. Did the document look genuine? Did it bear the hallmarks of real, reliable intelligence of the sort that would normally be passed around within security agencies?
We asked two veterans of the CIA in the US, and one former MI5 agent in Europe. They have 32 years of intelligence experience between them. All three had a low opinion of the document’s quality.
For obvious reasons, all three sources were not able to say that the document’s information was outright false. Its contents remain unverified, although Trump vehemently denies it. Some of its details have turned out to be wrong. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has never been to Prague, for instance. That turned out to be a different Michael Cohen. Other parts of it summarise matters of public record — Paul Manafort’s links to Ukraine, for instance.
Much has been made of the document’s provenance: It was written by Christopher Steele, the former head of MI6’s Russia desk, an agent who spent two years in Moscow in the early 1990s and who apparently retained his contacts in Russia when he went into private practice as the founder of Orbis Intelligence in London.
The document was passed to Senator John McCain after he heard about it from Sir Andrew Wood, the former UK Ambassador to Moscow. From there, McCain passed it to the FBI. Senator Harry Reid also urged the FBI to look into it. Both President Obama and Trump were briefed on its existence by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers.
That history suggests that serious people took it seriously, and thus we should take it seriously too. However, Business Insider’s mini-panel of intel experts has the opposite view. “It’s very unsubstantiated. It sounds like gossip, it’s full of typos and if this guy [Steele] is as professional as he says he was, he must be mortified,” one said.
Our sources are all former intelligence operatives. They have various levels of disenchantment with the business in which they used to make a living. One of them left the service that formerly employed them in disgust. And they all had strong political views about what is “really” going on between Trump and the CIA and the FBI. And, of course, although one of our sources worked for MI5 (Britain’s domestic security intelligence service) none of them have worked for MI6 (Britain’s foreign security intelligence service).
But they have all worked in intel, and they know what good and bad quality information looks like in that world. So we have decided to quote them anonymously, and only on the narrow technical issue of whether the document looks like “real” intelligence or not.
Here are some of the things they said.
The first problem is the way the document is written. Our sources noted that all the information in it comes from Steele in a largely unattributed or uncheckable fashion. The document looks nothing like a finished, checked, and vetted intelligence report that could be acted on.
It looks more like gossip than intelligence.
- “It should not have been released in this format, it’s almost like notes.”
- “This is not intelligence this is gossip.”
- “We don’t consider a person like Steele a source. He is reporting from sources that he has assembled and what he’s reporting is no better than rumour.”
The multiple incorrect details in the document rang alarm bells with our sources.
- “The messing up on details, something as simple as Michael Cohen supposedly being in Prague and he’s never been to Prague, stupid errors like that reflect a lack of genuine competence.”
Many of the assertions in the document lack corroboration.
- “You have source A and source B and source C [in the document] and there’s nothing of the kinds of information that would allow a reports officer … to evaluate whether he or she should dignify it by putting it into a report to give to another analyst, so that analyst can crank it in with other sources that he or she has. It’s wrong in some cases, it has locations wrong, and a spelling wrong.”
- “If it was really true you’d have a name or two of the hookers, you’d have a picture or two, you’d have a check-in register, dates he checked in or checked out … you could see if they kept some of the surveillance footage from the hotel security cameras.”
- “The lack of corroboration … we get documented evidence of some sort, you’ve got to be able to go corroborate … something that will lend some credence to it … in this case the hotel register – when did he check? When did he check out? … That’s what rings true to me.
Our sources were surprised that Steele’s Russian security sources would leak to him a story as sensitive as the one about the hotel room.
- “If my goal is blackmail, if I want kompromat … I’m going to protect that. I’m not going to share that and let other people know.”
- “The people who collect this information don’t disseminate it, sometimes they keep it from their own analysts … especially if the content is ridiculous.”
Steele’s document makes it easy for the Russians to identify his sources — and that is huge faux pas.
- “If you’ve got that kind of compromising material, it’s not lying around for any Joe Blow to use [and thus unlikely to make its way to Steele].”
- “You don’t give away information like that, that makes it easy to identify your sources.”
- “Steele is recklessly exposing his own sources, for being executed or imprisoned.”
Our sources were also unable to answer the big question prompted by their analysis: If Steele was a seasoned veteran of MI6 he would have known that his document would look shoddy to anyone else in the business that he sent it to. So why did he send it to the FBI in that condition? We may never know. Steele is currently in hiding.
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