If the claims cannot be substantiated, what then?
The former Foreign Office official, who has known Steele for 25 years and considers him a friend, said: “The idea his work is fake or a cowboy operation is false – completely untrue. Chris is an experienced and highly regarded professional. He’s not the sort of person who will simply pass on gossip.”
The official added: “If he puts something in a report, he believes there’s sufficient credibility in it for it to be worth considering. Chris is a very straight guy. He could not have survived in the job he was in if he had been prone to flights of fancy or doing things in an ill-considered way.”
The Foreign Office official who spoke to the Guardian on Thursday acknowledged that the Steele dossier was not perfect. But he pointed out that intelligence reports always came with “gradations of veracity” and included phrases such as “a high degree of probability”. “You aren’t dealing with a binary world where you can say this is true and this isn’t,” the official said.
He added: “The strongest reason for giving this report credence is that intelligence professionals in the US take it seriously. They were sufficiently persuade d by the author’s track record to find the contents worth passing to the president and president-elect.”
The CIA and FBI will have taken various factors into consideration before deciding on its credibility. They could include Trump’s public comments during the campaign, when he urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. The agencies may also have classified, intercepted material provided by the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ.
They must, equally, have considered whether some of the claims in the report might have been part of an elaborate Russian disinformation exercise. “This is unlikely. The dossier is multi-dimensional, involving many different people, and many moving parts,” the official suggested.
But intelligence is not evidence, and Steele would have known, better than anyone, that the information he was gathering was not fact and could be wrong. In the smoke-and-mirrors world of counterespionage, there are few certainties.
Those caveats do not appear on the documents – but they are given by Steele as a warning to prospective new clients.
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