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Opinion A much-cited defense of the Steele dossier has a problem

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) holds up a copy of the Steele dossier during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 11. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Sixth in a series on the media’s handling of the Steele dossier. Read the rest of the series here.

A year ago, in a post for Lawfare, Sarah Grant and Chuck Rosenberg assessed the durability of the Russia dossier compiled in 2016 by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. “The dossier holds up well over time, and none of it, to our knowledge, has been disproven,” they concluded.

The solid idea behind the Grant-Rosenberg piece was to compare claims in the dossier with claims in official documents, such as indictments and testimony. Exhibit A was a Steele claim about Russian hacking sophistication — the use of “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct 'altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership” — as well as the reliance on WikiLeaks to surface hacked material for “plausible deniability.” The whole shebang, contended the dossier, “had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team.”

In vetting these claims, Grant-Rosenberg relied on the July 2018 indictment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III against 12 officers of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU). The official record, argued the authors, makes some of the same connections found in the Steele dossier. However: It didn’t “corroborate the statement in the dossier that the Russian intelligence ‘operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team,'” conceded the authors.

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Other dossier claims evaluated by Grant and Rosenberg related to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign adviser Carter Page and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen — including the latter’s alleged visit to Prague in 2016 to meet with Russians. “Again, the current public official record does not affirmatively corroborate the assertion that Cohen spearheaded, even for a short time, efforts by the Trump team to obtain unlawful election assistance from the Russian government. But neither does the absence of such detail mean that the dossier is false,” wrote Grant and Rosenberg.

Here’s a guide to how elements of the Steele dossier match up with the Mueller report. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

In a segment pegged to the Lawfare piece, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace looked at the evidence and said of the dossier, “To date, none of it has been disproven and whole, big parts of it are holding up.” Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney, told her, “As more and more official documents come out, you can hold them next to the dossier and see that they line up.”

As this series has noted several times, the report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, released on Dec. 9, pummeled the dossier. From the report: “The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”

Such is the verdict of an investigative effort that spanned nearly two years and incorporated interviews with more than 100 people.

We asked Wallace to take another look at the segment in light of the Horowitz report. She replied: “The segment was based on Chuck Rosenberg’s careful and incredibly specific corroboration of sections of the dossier using public court documents and filings from the Mueller investigation. We stand by Chuck’s thoughtful and careful analysis around which the piece is built and the segment itself.”

And we asked Rosenberg about his and Grant’s piece in Lawfare. His response:

I do not think our analysis was particularly sunny or particularly gloomy. What we tried to do was simply compare information in the credible public record with information in the dossier. In some places it matched up well; in others, as we wrote, the dossier remains uncorroborated and unconfirmed. The IG report adds important information about the provenance of the dossier (and some of that certainly calls Steele’s methodology and his raw intelligence into question). That happens with raw intelligence, as you know. That said, the matches with the credible public record that we found largely - if not fully - survive. It is always helpful to have more and better information. With what is out there now, I think we would have written our article a bit differently. We did the best we could with what we had at the time.

The Grant-Rosenberg piece was armed with caveats. It pointed out that it was “assessing the Steele dossier as a raw intelligence document, not a finished piece of analysis” — which is to say, notes from sources, and not confirmed findings. “The Mueller investigation has clearly produced public records that confirm pieces of the dossier,” wrote Grant-Rosenberg. “And even where the details are not exact, the general thrust of Steele’s reporting seems credible in light of what we now know about extensive contacts between numerous individuals associated with the Trump campaign and Russian government officials.”

Subsequent events have cast doubt on the general and specific thrust of Steele’s reporting. The Mueller report did not establish any conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign — the core allegation of the dossier. The FBI, according to the Horowitz report, found that the Cohen allegations were “not true.” Then there were the conclusions in the Horowitz report about Page, the former campaign adviser whom the FBI pursued by securing surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). From the report (“election reporting” refers to Steele’s dossier):

We determined that prior to and during the pendency of the FISAs the FBI was unable to corroborate any of the specific substantive allegations against Carter Page contained in the election reporting and relied on on the FISA applications, and was only able to confirm the accuracy of a limited number of circumstantial facts, most of which were in the public domain, such as the dates that Page traveled to Russia, the timing of events, and the occupational positions of individuals referenced in the reports.

Any DIY effort to corroborate the dossier was always going to be a stretch. When BuzzFeed published the dossier in January 2017, it included this absurd rationale: “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.” What American has the sources to determine whether “Ex-Ukrainian President YANUKOVYCH confides directly to PUTIN that he authorised kick-back payments to MANAFORT...”?

The intricacies of reverse-engineering the sprawling claims of the dossier strike at a common defense of the document — that it hasn’t been “disproven.” Both Rosenberg and Wallace made that same point in their analyses of the dossier. After the Mueller report hollowed out key points of the dossier, Joshua Levy, counsel for Fusion GPS — the research firm that commissioned the memorandums — issued this statement: “The Mueller Report substantiates the core reporting and many of the specifics in Christopher Steele’s 2016 memoranda, including that Trump campaign figures were secretly meeting Kremlin figures, that Russia was conducting a covert operation to elect Donald Trump, and that the aim of the Russian operation was to sow discord and disunity in the US and within the Transatlantic Alliance. To our knowledge, nothing in the Steele memoranda has been disproven.”

Well, so what? The absence of disproof is not proof. By this standard, any crazy claim that doesn’t trigger a bulletproof refutation acquires a sheen of credibility. The Steele dossier skated on this logical equivocation for years. Journalists who recite the “not disproven” talking point might consider that they work in a profession that requires pairing new and explosive claims with the evidence to support them.

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple:

Part 1 of this series: 'The story stands’: McClatchy won’t back off its Michael Cohen-Prague reporting

Part 2: Horowitz report confirms John Solomon’s scoop on FBI ‘spreadsheet’ regarding Steele dossier

Part 3: ‘Disinformation’ claim ‘galls’ dossier author Christopher Steele

Part 4: CNN lands an interview with its own contributor

Part 5: Rachel Maddow rooted for the Steele dossier to be true. Then it fell apart.

Part 7: ‘Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape’ — New York Times reporter talks Steele dossier, Horowitz report and more

Part 8: Dear CNN: What parts of the Steele dossier were corroborated?

Part 9: Come clean, CNN

Part 10: ‘So this is all about collusion’: An inventory of media remarks on the Steele dossier