CNN, The 'Trump Dossier' and 'Fake News'

02/12/2017 11:07 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2017
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In a “breaking news” story that unfolded on the evening of February 10, 2017, breathlessly recanted by a succession of on-air hosts, CNN reported that “multiple current and former U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials” had informed the news organization that conversations between Russian officials, intercepted by U.S. intelligence services, provided “corroboration” of certain aspects of the so-called “Trump Dossier,” written by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele. Steele had worked for British Intelligence (MI6) in Moscow during the 1990s, and after he left active service started his own business intelligence company.

While CNN’s sources were not able to confirm which specific conversations linked to the dossier had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence, they did note that some of the intercepted conversations “took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier,” providing American investigators with “greater confidence” in the “credibility of some aspects of the dossier.”

Christopher Steele had been hired by political operatives opposed to the candidacy of Donald Trump to find Russian sources that could show a connection between Trump and the Russian government that would derail Trump’s presidential bid. The dossier Steele assembled contained a diverse range of information, ranging from the salacious to the politically unsavory; any one of the reports, if proven to be true, could prove to be Trump’s downfall.

Steele’s employers were trying to prevent Trump from prevailing in the Republican primary; when Trump won, they rescinded their interest in the dossier.  Steele maintains that he was so shocked by the contents of the dossier that he sought a way to publicize the contents. After shopping the documents around various political and journalistic outlets, the dossier and its contents came to light in January 2017, after Trump had won the presidential election.

The timing of the revelation of the dossier’s existence, coinciding as it did with the release of an assessment by the U.S. Intelligence Community that Russia had sought to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor, guaranteed maximum exposure for Steele’s information. But the dossier contained some errors which, when combined with the unverified nature of the allegations contained within, damaged its credibility – until CNN’s alarming “breaking news” report gave it new life.

The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, when asked for a comment on the CNN story, was dismissive of the report. “We continue to be disgusted by CNN’s fake news reporting,” Spicer declared. Spicer and the White House had every reason to be frustrated by the CNN report, which lacked any specificity to back up the conclusions reached. President Trump had already dismissed the dossier in its entirety, echoing Spicer’s charge of “fake news.”

By CNN standards, this was real news, and the reporters were just doing their job.

But was it “fake news”? CNN would undoubtedly argue against such a label.  The reporters involved, Jim Sciutto and Evan Perez, claimed to have sources that presumably met whatever journalistic standard CNN uses to measure source credibility. According to the Journalism 101 formulation in play at CNN, the sources provided information, and CNN dutifully reported it. By CNN standards, this was real news, and the reporters were just doing their job.

On the surface, this is a damning piece of information that would definitely be newsworthy – if it were true. One of the major problems with the dossier in question, however, is that it doesn’t provide nearly the level of detail the CNN report claims. The dossier, by way of example, never states anywhere that “Named Person A” spoke to “Named Person B.” Instead, the dossier reports that a “trusted compatriot” spoke to “Source A” (a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure), “Source B” (former “top level” Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin) and “Source C” (a senior Russian financial official), among others. When names are provided, they were always at least one person removed from the named individual – a “Source close to MEDVEDEV” (the former prime minister), a “Close confidant to IVANOV” (a presidential advisor), or even “a separate source close to IVANOV” who “confided to a compatriot.”

Moreover, nowhere in the dossier is there any linking of the reporting provided with a specific date of the event in question. Each report within the dossier contains a date the report was written, but this far different from being the date a specific activity is to have taken place. The reports contained in the dossier provide vague time frames – “June 2016,” “late July 2016,” “mid-September 2016” – but do not provide a specific date, let alone a specific location, for any of the information provided. Any contention by CNN’s sources that the U.S. intelligence community had intercepted conversations that conform to the “same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier” is facially false – something any competent journalist would have been able to confirm prior to airing the report. 

CNN also reported “U.S. intelligence agencies checked out the former MI6 operative and his vast network throughout Europe and found him and his sources to be credible” – sources that, as CNN notes, were “heavily involved in gathering intelligence damaging to Hillary Clinton.” Here, too, the dossier falls short. One of the primary sources cited in the dossier pertaining to the collection of information on Hillary Clinton by the Russians – “Source B” (the former “top level” Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin) – reported (via a “trusted compatriot”) that “Department K” of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had “collated” reports “for many years” derived from “bugged conversations” and “phone intercepts” that “focused on things that [Clinton] had said which contradicted her current position on various issues.”

There are several problems with this report. First and foremost, “Department K” is part of the “Economic Security Service” of the FSB, responsible for customs enforcement, smuggling and corruption.  Collecting and collating a dossier of “compromising information” on a first lady/secretary of state is far removed from the legal and operational mandate of “Department K,” unless Mrs. Clinton was involved in credit card fraud, caviar smuggling, or some other untoward activity. But the stated purpose of “Department K” was to collect political intelligence; the likelihood that “Department K” would have been given such a sensitive task, when there are other intelligence agencies and departments who are specifically trained, equipped and tasked with this sort of collection, is so remote as to verge on nil. 

The author of the “Trump Dossier,” Christopher Steele, served in Moscow with MI6, one of the world’s premier intelligence services. MI6 officers have a well-founded reputation for being very knowledgeable and exceptionally well briefed. Any MI6 officer with Moscow experience would know the opposition intelligence services’ organizational structures, responsibilities and capabilities like the back of his hand. This level of professionalism would be expected to continue after retirement, especially if contracting out services as a Russian expert, as was Mr. Steele; Steele would have known “Department K” would not be involved in collecting political intelligence against Hillary Clinton.  The same holds true for “Source B” (the former “top level” Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin), if he was indeed that which the dossier claimed.

The inclusion of such easily refutable information in the Trump Dossier (i.e., that “Department K” was collecting political intelligence on Hillary Clinton) sheds genuine doubt on the reliability of Steele’s so-called “vast network” that U.S. intelligence sources – and CNN – found to be so “credible.”  It also reflects poorly on the viability of both Christopher Steele and the very “law enforcement and intelligence” sources CNN relied upon for it’s reporting.  “Source B” fails the credibility test, something Christopher Steele would have known when he reported it, and any U.S. intelligence officer worth their salt would have assessed after a cursory analysis of the information. The same, too, can be said of any journalist who responsibly verified the information provided by their sources. Despite all this, CNN still aired the report.

Genuine criticism of the Trump administration is one thing; there is a plethora of legitimate investigatory paths CNN can follow in this regard.

How did this happen? Occam’s razor suggests that the answer is obvious.  Christopher Steele, when he wrote the reports in question, was not an intelligence officer; he should not be treated as one, and as such his dossier should not be viewed as the product of an intelligence officer.  Steele was a paid rumormonger, hired by politically motivated persons for the sole purpose of collecting information that would be harmful to Donald Trump.  Steele’s job wasn’t to tell the truth so much as it was to provide a product acceptable to his employer. His sources were not credible on their face, something Christopher Steele, the MI6 professional, knew only too well.  So would any credible “law enforcement” or “intelligence” professional that CNN may have been in contact with about this story.

Steele’s aggressive peddling of what he knew to be poorly sourced information, combined with “law enforcement” and “intelligence” sources giving the dossier undeserved credence, and CNN airing the resultant in such a high profile manner, points to the existence of a shared motive centered around the undermining of public confidence in the presidency of Donald Trump.

Genuine criticism of the Trump administration is one thing; there is a plethora of legitimate investigatory paths CNN can follow in this regard, including National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian authorities and the sources and methods used by the U.S. Intelligence Community in preparing its assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  These are desirable and necessary journalistic inquiries that CNN, and all other journalistic outlets, should be strongly pursuing.

CNN chose instead to breathe life into a discredited dossier whose very existence screams partisan politics. It is one thing to report on the nuts and bolts of a story about the politicization of intelligence. Deliberately using CNN’s journalistic cache to give credence to highly politicized intelligence that everyone in the informational chain of custody – including the journalists involved – knew (or should have known) was factually unsustainable, is something else altogether.

That is the very definition of “fake news,” and in this case, at least, CNN is guilty as charged.

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