The Steele Dossier Has Done Real Damage to Western Intelligence Gathering on Russia

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:, January 16, 2018)

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U.S. and British intelligence services may have lost valuable insights into Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s government due to the publishing of Fusion GPS’ Trump-Russia dossier, according to sources within the U.S. intelligence community.

One intelligence source connected to the Putin regime already has died due to the dossier‘s publication, said a lawyer representing Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson during closed testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in August 2017.

Since being released to the public by BuzzFeed in January 2017, the dossier has fueled wild (and mostly uncorroborated) speculation about how deep Donald Trump’s ties are to Russian interests and how Russian intelligence may be using kompromat to blackmail Trump.

Lost in the din of Democrats’ outrage at the still unsubstantiated claim of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Russians is the possible loss of important intelligence assets identified in the dossier.

If true, more damage to U.S. interests may result from the loss in these intelligence assets circling the Kremlin than from Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Based on FusionGPS personnel’s own testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the proximal blame for the loss of possibly one intelligence asset rests with FusionGPS and Christopher Steele, the former MI6 intelligence officer who compiled the dossier between June to December 2016. By actively leaking the dossier to the U.S. media, Fusion GPS and Steele compromised U.S. and U.K. intelligence efforts in Russia.

On December 26, 2016, Oleg Erovinkin, a former KGB/FSB general, was found dead in his car in Moscow. Erovinkin was a key liaison between Igor Sechin, head of state-owned oil company Rosneft, and President Putin. Steele has acknowledged that one of his primary sources for the dossier was an Sechin associate.  According to Christo Grozev, a journalist at Risk Management Lab, a think-tank based in Bulgaria, the circumstances of Erovinkin’s death are consistent with methods used by Putin to control leaks within his government.

The media has reported Steele’s sources for the dossier were at least partially developed over his long-career within MI6, the U.K.’s foreign intelligence service, where he was regarded as a top Kremlin expert. If true, the damage done by the public release of the Trump-Russia dossier may extend beyond one intelligence asset and may have compromised multiple assets financed and cultivated by MI6.

This is doubly problematic for U.S. and U.K. intelligence efforts in Russia given the historic difficulty Western intelligence agencies have had in developing reliable intelligence assets in Russia and the former Soviet Union. As Putin continues to increase his country’s intelligence and espionage efforts around the globe, the U.S. and U.K. have been forced to play catch-up.

Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, may have over 150 operatives in the United States, according to one U.S. intelligence source interviewed in a September 2016 Washington Post story. “The CIA, by contrast, has at most several dozen case officers — the term for agency employees responsible for stealing secrets abroad — based in Russia, with several dozen more scattered across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states,” reported the Washington Post.

To compensate for lower numbers, the CIA is more aggressive when recruiting Russian officials as intelligence assets for the U.S., according to one U.S. intelligence officials cited in the Washington Post story.

This aggressive approach, however, has recently led to reports of harassment and even arrests by Russia of suspected spies working for the U.S.

In June 2016, an American diplomat returning by taxi to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was assaulted by a Russian security guard. In May 2013, Russia expelled a U.S. diplomat they accused of attempting to recruit a Russian agent for the CIA.

Given this renewed need and effort to develop assets in Russia, the compromising of existing assets by Fusion GPS and Steele has become particularly painful to Western intelligence services. The question keeping them awake today is whether MI6 allowed one of its former intelligence officers to exploit assets it had cultivated on UK taxpayers’ dime, or did Steele develop these assets wholly independent from MI6 after his retirement in 2009?

According to one U.S. intelligence source, it is improbable Steele developed assets for the dossier from scratch and most likely leveraged relationships he had developed while working for MI6.

If so, the potential damage to Western intelligence efforts in Russia from propagandizing of the dossier by U.S. political actors may be substantial and long-term.

The blame for that will go well beyond Steele and MI6.

One intelligence expert cautioned the U.S. government in 2011 that the growing privatization of important intelligence functions by the U.S. intelligence agencies, if not properly controlled, could threaten the quality of U.S. intelligence reporting and collection in the future.

Armin Krishnan, a political science professor at East Carolina University, warned in a 2011 article about the dangers of privatized intelligence:

“The trend toward intelligence privatization and outsourcing is a cause for concern for many reasons. First, it breeds corruption and gross inefficiency. Second, it has resulted in massive abuses of civil liberties and human rights. Third, it weakens the quality of intelligence products, as national intelligence becomes dominated by private interests with strong incentives for biased reporting. Fourth, it creates difficulties for the control and oversight of intelligence activities, as it is more difficult for the government to monitor contracted companies and private companies have less obligation to turn over information to congressional oversight bodies. Fifth, in the long term, it will cause a loss of core competencies and expertise to the private sector, especially as it concerns technology.”

The Steele dossier highlights Krishnan’s third concern in that it was political opposition research commissioned by Trump’s political opponents. Not only did that put the dossier at risk for being biased — Fusion GPS and Steele were getting paid well for their efforts and wanted to their work to seem worth the money — there was a strong incentive to include as much rumor and as many giant leaps of inference as possible in order to make the client happy.

The dossier was never meant to be a high quality intelligence product meeting the analytic standards of MI6 or any U.S. intelligence agency.

While Krishnan’s concern over intelligence privatization is focused on U.S. intelligence services using private interests to achieve their missions and goals, the bigger problem with the Steele dossier is that it was motivated outside the U.S. or UK governments’ intelligence needs and requirements. Furthermore, it was funded by political actors with purely partisan impulses.

Regardless if Steele, through his dossier research, became so concerned about Russia blackmailing Trump that he ran straight to the FBI, his noble instincts were undercut by whatever forces decided to take his dossier and pass it around U.S. media elites in October 2016.

By doing so, those forces substantively hurt U.S. and other countries’ intelligence efforts focused on Russia. It is harder today, because of the dossier, for Western intelligence services to recruit well-placed assets in Russia.

Anyone involved in leaking the dossier and other related U.S. intelligence information need to be held accountable for what they did. They did real harm.

K. R. K.

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About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.