Some journalists are happy to knock on the doors of strangers. I was never one of them, but Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy behind the infamous Trump dossier, left me no choice.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Steele had been hired by an investigative firm called Fusion GPS to gather dirt about Donald J. Trump and Russia. The firm’s founders, two former Wall Street Journal reporters, made it clear they would not talk to me for a book I was writing about the business of private intelligence. So on an early summer morning in 2019, I arrived at Mr. Steele’s home in Farnham, a picturesque English village.
In photographs, the retired MI6 agent was always dressed impeccably in business suits, his graying hair freshly coifed. When he opened his door, he was wearing plaid boxer shorts and a blue T-shirt and had a serious case of bed head. “I can’t talk today,” he said. “It’s my birthday.”
At the time, those involved with the dossier were intent on controlling its narrative and eager to capitalize on their fame. Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the founders of Fusion GPS, wrote a book about the dossier that became a best seller. Mr. Steele sold his life rights to a Hollywood studio owned by George Clooney. When a guest at a private dinner party hosted by Vanity Fair asked him for his business card, he thought it was a fan who wanted his autograph, so he picked up his place card and signed it.
Now the glow has faded — from both the dossier and its promoters. Russia, as Mr. Steele asserted, did try to influence the 2016 election. But many of the dossier’s most explosive claims — like a salacious “pee” tape featuring Mr. Trump or a supposed meeting in Prague between Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former attorney, and Russian operatives — have never materialized or have been proved false. The founders of Alfa Bank, a major Russian financial institution, are suing Fusion GPS, claiming the firm libeled them. (Fusion has denied the claims.) Plans for a film based on Mr. Steele’s adventures appear dead.
Beneath the dossier’s journey from media obsession to slush pile lies a broader and more troubling story. Today, private spying has boomed into a renegade, billion-dollar industry, one that is increasingly invading our privacy, profiting from deception and manipulating the news.
Big law firms in New York and London are clamoring for the services of firms like Black Cube, an Israeli company that worked for Harvey Weinstein. Dictators are using private spies as freelance intelligence agents, and off-the-shelf technology is making it easier for them to monitor cellphones and hack emails. Over the past decade, spies for hire have become more emboldened — just as their power to influence events has become more pervasive.
While I was examining the private intelligence business, it became clear that I needed to look at another profession, the one where my career had been spent — journalism. Reporters and private investigators long have had a symbiotic relationship that is hidden from the public. Hired spies feed journalists story tips or documents and use reporters to plant stories benefiting a client without leaving their fingerprints behind.
The information they peddle is often sensational. It can also be impossible to verify or be untrue.
When Mr. Trump, an ex-MI6 agent and two former reporters were thrown into the mix, the ingredients were in place for a media debacle of epic proportions. And in a news business that is fragmented and hyperpartisan, a similar fiasco may lie dead ahead.
‘Congrats on the big P’
The private intelligence business is home to a scattershot of figures — ex-government spies, former law enforcement officials and others. As the newspaper industry has shrunk, a growing number of reporters like Mr. Simpson and Mr. Fritsch have joined their ranks.
The two men, who did not respond to my requests for comment, started Fusion GPS a decade ago. There, they worked for nonprofits, hedge funds and companies they might have investigated during their Wall Street Journal careers.
In 2015, Mr. Fritsch sent an email to a former colleague at the newspaper, congratulating him and others there on winning a Pulitzer Prize for articles that exposed how doctors were draining Medicare.
“First, big congrats on the big P. Has Rupert had you on his yacht yet?” Mr. Fritsch wrote to the colleague, John Carreyrou, referring to the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch.
Mr. Fritsch then explained that his firm was examining companies that did blood and other medical tests, and that he was eager to get Mr. Carreyrou’s impression of an industry whistle-blower. “I caught him lying to me about something and just wanted to reach out and get your read of this dude,” Mr. Fritsch wrote, according to copies of the emails reviewed by The New York Times.
As it happened, Mr. Carreyrou had just started investigating Theranos, a high-flying start-up that claimed to have developed a revolutionary blood testing technology.
Once Theranos caught wind of Mr. Carreyrou’s interest, its lawyers hired Fusion GPS. Mr. Fritsch acknowledged in a follow-up email that he was working on the company’s behalf, and he told Mr. Carreyrou that he was urging Theranos to let him interview its founder, Elizabeth Holmes.
But as weeks passed and the reporter pressed to interview Ms. Holmes and another top Theranos executive, with whom she was suspected of having an affair, Mr. Fritsch’s tone turned combative and condescending.
“i think you are playing this a lot harder than it needs to play,” Mr. Fritsch wrote. “i get the tactic and have used it myself but usually only after I had the abu ghraib photos in my hand, so to speak.”
Their exchange quickly ended, and while the Journal reporter continued to investigate Theranos, Mr. Fritsch started a different inquiry — one aimed at Mr. Carreyrou, who would eventually expose flaws in the start-up’s technology and the lengths it went to hide them.
To monitor reporters, Fusion GPS used an outside contractor who submitted open-record requests to government agencies asking for inquiries made by journalists for public documents. In mid-2015, emails show, Mr. Fritsch asked the contractor about ways to frame requests for inquiries by Mr. Carreyrou for Theranos records “so it doesn’t look like we are targeting him specifically?”
“I would like to not mention carreyrou by name,” Mr. Fritsch wrote. “the reason is obvious: if we name him and he sees that, he’ll know who you are working for/with etc.”
When the contractor rejected one proposal about how to disguise their interest, Mr. Fritsch suggested another approach. “to mask it, let’s also include the new york times,” he said.
‘Journalism for rent’
Mr. Simpson loved holding court with reporters, regaling them with war stories and presenting himself as a journalistic wise man. At a conference of investigative journalists in 2016, he said he and Mr. Fritsch had started Fusion to continue their work as reporters who righted wrongs.
“I like to call it journalism for rent,” he said.
Fusion GPS, like its competitors, belonged to a wider web of enablers — lawyers, public relations executives and “crisis management” consultants — who serve the wealthy, the powerful and the controversial. For their part, private intelligence firms take on jobs that others don’t know how to do or don’t want to get caught doing.
Information gathered by private investigators is often laundered through public relations firms, which then shop the material to journalists. Jules Kroll, who created the modern-day private intelligence industry in the 1970s, broke that mold by leaking information directly to reporters. Mr. Simpson took it a step further. He sold Fusion GPS to clients by emphasizing his connections at major media outlets and assured journalists that he was really still one of them.
“People who have never been a reporter don’t understand the challenges of printing what you know, right, because you can’t just say what you know — you have to say how you know, and you have to prove it,” Mr. Simpson remarked at the 2016 conference. “When you’re a spy, you really don’t have to get into a lot of that stuff.”
Fusion GPS also mined a field that other private intelligence firms avoided — political opposition research. And when Mr. Trump emerged in 2016 as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, lawyers for Hillary Clinton’s campaign hired Fusion to dig into ties between Mr. Trump and Russia.
In the fall of 2016, Fusion GPS invited selected reporters from The Times, The New Yorker and other news organizations to meet Mr. Steele in Washington and receive briefings on what he had uncovered about the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. As is often the case in the world of private intelligence, the meetings came with a catch: If news organizations wrote about the dossier, they had to agree not to disclose that Fusion GPS and the former British agent were the sources of the material.
Mr. Steele was described to journalists as having played a pivotal role in breaking huge cases, including the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. agent, and the F.B.I.’s investigation into bribery at FIFA, soccer’s governing body. And when speaking about Mr. Trump and Russia, he came across as calm, understated and confident, according to reporters who attended the meetings.
Mr. Steele said his information about Mr. Trump and his associates had been gathered by an unnamed, highly skilled operative with Kremlin connections referred to as his “collector.” In memos, the ex-agent referred to his collector’s informants using code names like “Source A” and “Source B.”
It was easy for many journalists to believe that Mr. Trump would do anything to win, even — given his stance with President Vladimir Putin — collude with Russia. And while Mr. Steele said that his information needed to be confirmed, he left little doubt that he was right.
“He described Trump as a kind of Manchurian candidate,” recalled one reporter who met with him.
Mr. Steele had talents. And as with many private spies, his past was his big selling point. But his purported achievements were hard to examine since they were by nature secretive.
The best friend of Mr. Litvinenko, the murdered ex-K.G.B. agent, said neither he nor Mr. Litvinenko’s wife had heard of Mr. Steele. Neither had a former Times reporter, Alan Cowell, who wrote a book about the Litvinenko case. Ken Bensinger, a BuzzFeed reporter who wrote a book about the FIFA scandal, said that after speaking with Mr. Steele, he concluded that Mr. Steele really didn’t know much about it.
‘Brave enough to believe’
Investigative journalists normally rely on court records, corporate documents and other tangible pieces of evidence. But the dossier took them down a very different path, one into the shadow lands of intelligence, a realm where documents don’t exist and where reporters often can’t independently confirm what their sources are saying.
After BuzzFeed posted the contents of the dossier in early 2017, countless articles, television shows, books, tweets and blog posts about it appeared. Then the music started to stop. Robert S. Mueller III, who led a Justice Department inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, barely mentioned the dossier in his 2019 report. A separate review that year by the inspector general of the Justice Department, Michael E. Horowitz, also threw cold water on the dossier and raised the possibility that Russian agents might have fed disinformation to Mr. Steele’s sources, a suggestion the former British agent rejected.
Over dinner in Moscow in 2019, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, offered her take on the matter. Ms. Veselnitskaya had worked alongside Mr. Simpson when she represented a Russian-owned real estate firm called Prevezon Holdings and said she regarded him as a skilled investigator. As for Mr. Steele and the dossier, she had nothing but contempt.
“If you take this fake stuff for real, then you just have to be brave enough to believe, to completely dismiss all your special services, all your intelligence staff,” she said rapidly through an interpreter. She suggested how odd it was that all those people and agencies “were never able to find out what that talented person found out without ever leaving his room.”
Ms. Veselnitskaya was embroiled in her own legal drama. The Justice Department had indicted her in connection with her work for Prevezon, a charge she denied. Still, she raised an issue that reporters who embraced the dossier had blown past: How did Christopher Steele know more about Donald Trump and Russia than the C.I.A. or MI6?
The dossier’s latest blow came last year when the identity of Mr. Steele’s collector was revealed. He turned out to be a Russian-born lawyer, Igor Danchenko, who now lived in the United States. Mr. Danchenko, like others in the private intelligence business, had stumbled into it after other pursuits failed. His contacts within Russia appeared to be not Kremlin A-listers but instead childhood friends, college buddies or drinking pals.
In 2017, Mr. Danchenko claimed to the F.B.I. during a secret interview that Mr. Steele had “misstated” the information and had “exaggerated” its reliability. But after that interview was released in 2020, Mr. Danchenko flip-flopped. He told one newspaper that he stood by the dossier; he told another newspaper that he wasn’t so sure about it.
By then, a few reporters who had written about the dossier had backed away from it. “Some people have wanted to maintain that the dossier is checking out when, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t,” said Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News. He was in the minority. When Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote a series of columns about the media infatuation with the dossier, most journalists he contacted either defended their work or ignored his inquiries.
In an article for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi cast the media’s handling of the dossier as a replay of a press disaster: the reporting before the Persian Gulf war, which claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “The W.M.D. affair showed what happened when we don’t require sources to show us evidence, when we let political actors use the press to ‘confirm’ their own assertions,” Mr. Taibbi wrote. “Are we never going to own up to this one?”
The short answer is no. To learn from the dossier episode, news organizations would have to examine their ties to private intelligence agents, including why they so often granted them anonymity. But as long as the media allows private spies to set the rules, journalists and the public will continue to lose.
In a recent book, Luke Harding, an investigative reporter at The Guardian, described how Mr. Steele had dispatched his “collector” to surreptitiously approach a real estate broker, Sergei Millian, who was a peripheral figure in the Trump/Russia saga. “Millian spoke at length and privately to this person, believing him or her to be trustworthy — a kindred soul,” Mr. Harding wrote.
But the trouble for Mr. Harding, who is close to both Mr. Steele and Mr. Simpson, was that he wrote those lines before the release of the F.B.I. interview of Mr. Danchenko.
In the interview, the collector said that he and Mr. Millian might have spoken briefly over the phone, but that the two had never met.
Mr. Harding did not respond to requests for comment.
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