Much of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into Donald Trump was built on the premise that Christopher Steele and his dossier were to be believed. This, even though early on Steele’s claims failed to bear scrutiny. Just how far off the claims were became clear when the FBI interviewed Steele’s “Primary Subsource” over three days beginning on Feb. 9, 2017. Notes taken by FBI agents of those interviews were released by the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday afternoon.
The Primary Subsource was in reality Steele’s sole source, a longtime Russian-speaking contractor for the former British spy’s company, Orbis Business Intelligence. In turn, the Primary Subsource had a group of friends in Russia. All of their names remain redacted. From the FBI interviews, it becomes clear that the Primary Subsource and his friends peddled warmed-over rumors and laughable gossip that Steele dressed up as formal intelligence memos.
Steele’s operation didn’t rely on great expertise, to judge from the Primary Subsource’s account. He described to the FBI the instructions Steele had given him sometime in the spring of 2016 regarding Paul Manafort: “Do you know [about] Manafort? Find out about Manafort’s dealings with Ukraine, his dealings with other countries, and any corrupt schemes.” The Primary Subsource admitted to the FBI “that he was ‘clueless’ about who Manafort was, and that this was a ‘strange task’ to have been given.”
The Primary Subsource said at first that maybe he had asked some of his friends in Russia – he didn’t have a network of sources, according to his lawyer, but instead just a “social circle.” And a boozy one at that: When the Primary Subsource would get together with his old friend Source 4, the two would drink heavily. But his social circle was no help with the Manafort question, and so the Primary Subsource scrounged up a few old news clippings about Manafort and fed them back to Steele.
Also in his “social circle” was Primary Subsource’s friend “Source 2,” a character who was always on the make. “He often tries to monetize his relationship with [the Primary Subsource], suggesting that the two of them should try and do projects together for money,” the Primary Subsource told the FBI (a caution that the Primary Subsource would repeat again and again.) It was Source 2 who “told [the Primary Subsource] that there was compromising material on Trump.”
And then there was Source 3, a very special friend. She would borrow money from the Primary Subsource that he didn’t expect to be paid back. She stayed with him when visiting the United States. The Primary Subsource told the FBI that in the midst of their conversations about Trump, they would also talk about “a private subject.” (The FBI agents, for all their hardnosed reputation, were too delicate to intrude by asking what that “private subject” was).
One day, Steele told his lead contractor to get dirt on five individuals. By the time he got around to it, the Primary Subsource had forgotten two of the names, but seemed to recall Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. The Primary Subsource said he asked his special friend Source 3 if she knew any of them. At first she didn’t. But within minutes, she seemed to recall having heard of Cohen, according to the FBI notes. Indeed, before long, it came back to her that she had heard Cohen and three henchmen had gone to Prague to meet with Russians.
Source 3 kept spinning yarns about Michael Cohen in Prague. For example, she claimed Cohen was delivering “deniable cash payments” to hackers. But come to think of it, the Primary Subsource was “not sure if Source 3 was brainstorming here,” the FBI notes say.
The Steele dossier would end up having authoritative-sounding reports of hackers who had been “recruited under duress by the FSB” — the Russian security service — and how they “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party.” What exactly, the FBI asked the subject, were “altering operations?” The Primary Subsource wouldn’t be much help there, as he told the FBI “that his understanding of this topic (i.e. cyber) was ‘zero.’” But what about his girlfriend whom he had known since they were in eighth grade together? The Primary Subsource admitted to the FBI that Source 3 “is not an IT specialist herself.”
And then there was Source 6. Or at least the Primary Subsource thinks it was Source 6.
While he was doing his research on Manafort, the Primary Subsource met a U.S. journalist “at a Thai restaurant.” The Primary Subsource didn’t want to ask “revealing questions” but managed to go so far as to ask, “Do you [redacted] know anyone who can talk about all of this Trump/Manafort stuff, or Trump and Russia?” According to the FBI notes, the journalist told the Primary Subsource “that he was skeptical and nothing substantive had turned up.” But the journalist put the Primary Subsource in touch with a “colleague” who in turn gave him an email of “this guy” journalist two had interviewed and “that he should talk to.”
With the email address of “this guy” in hand, the Primary Subsource sent him a message “in either June or July 2016.” Some weeks later, the Primary Subsource “received a telephone call from an unidentified Russia guy.” He “thought” but had no evidence that the mystery “Russian guy” was “that guy.” The mystery caller “never identified himself.” The Primary Subsource labeled the anonymous caller “Source 6.” The Primary Subsource and Source 6 talked for a total of “about 10 minutes.” During that brief conversation, they spoke about the Primary Subsource traveling to meet the anonymous caller, but the hook-up never happened.
Nonetheless, the Primary Subsource labeled the unknown Russian voice “Source 6” and gave Christopher Steele the rundown on their brief conversation – how they had “a general discussion about Trump and the Kremlin” and “that it was an ongoing relationship.” For use in the dossier, Steele named the voice Source E.
When Steele was done putting this utterly unsourced claim into the style of the dossier, here’s how the mystery call from the unknown guy was presented: “Speaking in confidence to a compatriot in late July 2016, Source E, an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP, admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership.” Steele writes, “Inter alia,” – yes, he really does deploy the Latin formulation for “among other things” – “Source E acknowledged that the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee [DNC], to the WikiLeaks platform.”
All that and more is presented as the testimony of a “close associate” of Trump, when it was just the disembodied voice of an unknown guy.
Perhaps even more perplexing is that the FBI interviewers, knowing that Source E was just an anonymous caller, didn’t compare that admission to the fantastical Steele bluster and declare the dossier a fabrication on the spot.
But perhaps it might be argued that Christopher Steele was bringing crack investigative skills of his own to bear. For something as rich in detail and powerful in effect as the dossier, Steele must have been researching these questions himself as well, using his hard-earned spy savvy to pry closely held secrets away from the Russians. Or at the very least, he must have relied on a team of intelligence operatives who could have gone far beyond the obvious limitations of the Primary Subsource and his group of drinking buddies.
But no. As we learned in December from Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Steele “was not the originating source of any of the factual information in his reporting.” Steele, the IG reported, “relied on a primary sub-source (Primary Sub- source) for information, and this Primary Sub-source used a network of [further] sub-sources to gather the information that was relayed to Steele.” The inspector general’s report noted that “neither Steele nor the Primary Sub-source had direct access to the information being reported.”
One might, by now, harbor some skepticism about the dossier. One might even be inclined to doubt the story that Trump was “into water sports” as the Primary Subsource so delicately described the tale of Trump and Moscow prostitutes. But in this account, there was an effort, however feeble, to nail down the “rumor and speculation” that Trump engaged in “unorthodox sexual activity at the Ritz.”
While the Primary Subsource admitted to the FBI “he had not been able to confirm the story,” Source 2 (who will be remembered as the hustler always looking for a lucrative score) supposedly asked a hotel manager about Trump, and the manager said that with celebrities, “one never knows what they’re doing.” One never knows – not exactly a robust proof of something that smacks of urban myth. But the Primary Subsource makes the best of it, declaring that at least “it wasn’t a denial.”
If there was any denial going on, it was the FBI’s, an agency in denial that its extraordinary investigation was crumbling.