Trump-Russia dossier was never meant to go public, ex-MI6 spy Christopher Steele tells court

Publishing confidential intelligence is 'morally repugnant' and 'professionally ruinous' says author of sensational claims about president

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Wednesday 22 July 2020 16:14
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Christopher Steele, the ex-MI6 officer who wrote the 2016 dossier alleging links between Donald Trump and Russia, has said that it was never intended for publication in the media.

Giving evidence at the High Court in London on Wednesday, Mr Steele told Mr Justice Mark Warby that he took great care to ensure intelligence was handled and communicated carefully, as his business depends on confidentiality.

He said that he never “knew, intended or foresaw” that a media organisation would publish the dossier for the “world at large” to see.

Mr Steele is in court for a defamation case brought against him and Orbis Business Intelligence, a company he co-founded, by Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian businessman named in the dossier.

Mr Gubarev said he was stunned when BuzzFeed reported that the Steele dossier had linked him to a “hacking incident” against the Democratic Party in the US ahead of the 2016 election.

The dossier was published by BuzzFeed on 10 January 2017, shortly before the inauguration of Mr Trump as president of the United States.

Orbis and Mr Steele deny defamation and are fighting Mr Gubarev’s demands for “very substantial” damages.

In a written witness statement Mr Steele said: “It is not in Orbis's interest for any of our intelligence work to be aired in the media or public domain, especially in raw or unanalysed form.”

He argued that this would undermine the company’s standing, saying that the business depends on the confidentiality of its clients and sources.

“If these are exposed to the world, no-one will contact Orbis to do discreet work on their behalf,” he said. “It would therefore be professionally ruinous — and also morally repugnant — for us to do anything that could risk exposing a source, especially in a ruthless, lawless place like Russia, as a result of any such (especially media) exposure.”

Mr Steele claims that had he known that BuzzFeed had a copy of the dossier, and intended to publish, he would have done “whatever I could do to prevent this”.

The dossier was commissioned as opposition research by Washington consultancy Fusion GPS, first acting for a Republican donor before Mr Trump secured the party’s nomination and the project was dropped.

Fusion GPS then approached law firm Perkins Coie which acted on behalf of the Democratic Party and pitched their services.

The judge has heard that the “ultimate client” was the “Democratic National Committee and/or Hillary Clinton's presidential election campaign”.

Andrew Caldecott QC, who leads Mr Gubarev’s legal team, says there is no suggestion the allegations against their client and Webzilla are true, and that BuzzFeed apologised and redacted the names from its website.

Mr Gubarev does not think that Orbis and Mr Steele acted in a “malicious” way, Mr Caldecott says, but the question needs to be answered is whether they were “responsible in law” for BuzzFeed publishing the dossier.

They argue that the defendants are indeed responsible. Mr Steele disagrees and wants the claim dismissed. The High Court hearing is scheduled to end later this week.

Earlier this month, in a separate case, the High Court ordered Mr Steele to pay damages of $23,000 (£17,900) each to two Russian businessmen that he claimed had made payoffs to Vladimir Putin in the 1990s.

Judge Mark Warby said that Mr Steele had not taken reasonable steps to verify the allegations and had violated a data privacy law.

Mr Steele had accused Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman of facilitating the transfer of large amounts of money to Mr Putin when he was deputy mayor of St Petersburg.

President Trump seized on the news, tweeting: “This man should be extradited, tried, and thrown into jail. A sick lier [sic] who was paid by Crooked Hillary & the DNC!”

Allegations of close ties to Russia and the Kremlin have dogged the Trump administration since the election campaign. Mr Steele's dossier formed part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

With reporting from the Press Association

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