Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the infamous anti-Donald Trump dossier, acknowledges that a sensational charge his sources made about a tech company CEO and Democratic Party hacking is unverified.
In a court filing, Mr. Steele also says his accusations against the president and his aides about a supposed Russian hacking conspiracy were never supposed to be made public, much less posted in full on a website for the world to see on Jan. 10.
He defends himself by saying he was betrayed by his client and that he followed proper internal channels by giving the dossier to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to alert the U.S. government.
Mr. Steele has not spoken publicly about his disputed opposition research project, but for the first time he is being forced to talk in a London court through his attorneys.
Barristers for Mr. Steele and his Orbis Business Intelligence firm filed their first defense against a defamation lawsuit brought by Aleksej Gubarev, chief executive of the network solutions firm XBT Holdings.
Mr. Steele acknowledges that the part of the 35-page dossier that identified Mr. Gubarev as a rogue hacker came from “unsolicited intelligence” and “raw intelligence” that “needed to be analyzed and further investigated/verified.”
Democrats in Washington have embraced the unproven dossier as an argument for appointing a high-powered commission to investigate President Trump and his aides.
In his final December dossier memo — his 16th — Mr. Steele accused Mr. Gubarev and his web-hosting companies of hacking the Democratic Party computer networks with pornography and bugging devices. Mr. Gubarev calls the charge fiction and filed a lawsuit in February.
Mr. Steele’s court filing portrays him as a victim of Fusion GPS — the Washington firm that hired him with money from a Hillary Clinton backer.
Fusion specializes in opposition research for Democrats and circulated the Steele dossier among reporters in an effort to injure the Trump candidacy and presidency. Mr. Steele said he never authorized Fusion to do that.
“The defendants did not provide any of the pre-election memoranda to media organizations or journalists. Nor did they authorize anyone to do so,” Mr. Steele said through his attorney. “Nor did they provide the confidential December memorandum to media organizations or journalists. Nor did they authorize anyone to do so.”
“At all material times Fusion was subject to an obligation not to disclose to third parties confidential intelligence material provided” by Mr. Steele and his firm Orbis, the court filing reads.
Mr. Steele personally signed the seven-page filing. He is represented by two London barristers who specialize in defamation cases: Gavin Millar and Edward Craven.
Mr. Steele says the ultimate responsibility lies with BuzzFeed, the liberal news website whose editor, Ben Smith, decided to post the entire 35 pages — memos from June to December — on Jan. 10 even though Mr. Smith said he doubted the far-flung accusations were true.
That momentous web posting sent Mr. Steele into hiding. He re-emerged March 7 in London, made a brief statement to the press and went inside his Orbis office.
The Steele dossier’s major charge is that the Trump campaign entered into an elaborate conspiracy with Russian agents to hack Democratic Party computers.
The Trump White House denies the charge, as do at least four people whom Mr. Steele’s unidentified sources accused of breaking the law.
The final Steele memo in December targets Mr. Gubarev and Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney.
That memo, after accusing Mr. Gubarev, then recounts from previous memos a supposed trip Mr. Cohen took to Prague in late August to meet with Russian agents and devise a plan to cover up the purported Trump team’s role in the hacking.
Mr. Cohen calls the dossier “fabricated.” He has shown that he was in California at the time and has never been to Prague. He told The Washington Times that he has instructed his attorneys to investigate a lawsuit against Mr. Steele.
The fact that Mr. Steele acknowledges that he put unverified “raw intelligence” into his December memo casts further doubt on his research techniques for the entire 35-page dossier.
Although Mr. Steele portrays himself as a victim of Fusion and BuzzFeed, he acknowledges in his court filing that he provided “off-the-record briefings to a small number of journalists about the pre-election memoranda in late summer/autumn 2016.”
The narration of the involvement of Mr. McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a vocal critic of Mr. Trump, reads like a spy novel.
Andrew Wood is a former British ambassador to Moscow and is an associate at the Orbis firm. After the Nov. 8 presidential election, Mr. Wood met with Mr. McCain and David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state who is director of human rights and democracy at The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. By that time, Mr. Steele had written 15 memos for the dossier.
As a result, Mr. Wood arranged for Mr. Kramer to meet with Mr. Steele “in order to show him the pre-election memoranda on a confidential basis,” the court filing says. The meeting occurred on Nov. 28 in Surrey, England.
“Mr. Kramer told [Mr. Steele] the intelligence he had gathered raised issues of potential national security importance,” the court filing says.
Mr. Kramer returned to Washington, and Fusion agreed to give a hard copy of the dossier to Mr. McCain “on a confidential basis via Mr. Kramer,” according to the filing.
Mr. McCain then asked Mr. Steele, through Mr. Kramer, to provide any additional information on Russian interference in the election.
U.S. intelligence officially has concluded that Russia directed a hacking operation into Democratic Party email servers and orchestrated the release of stolen emails via WikiLeaks to help the Trump campaign.
Mr. McCain has confirmed publicly that he personally turned over the dossier to FBI Director James B. Comey. But at that time, the FBI already had obtained the dossier from other sources and had been using it to investigate the supposed Trump-Russia connection.
Afterward, Mr. Steele continued to receive “raw intelligence,” including the Gubarev accusations. He wrote the December memo after his work for Fusion had ended.
He provided that memo to British national security officials and to Fusion through an “enciphered email,” with instructions to provide a copy to Mr. McCain.
The court filing says Mr. Steele has worked with Fusion for “a number of years” and was hired in June to begin investigating Mr. Trump. It was in June when the Democratic National Committee disclosed publicly that it had been hacked and its cybersleuths singled out Russia as the likely culprit.
Mr. Steele does not mention another American contact he made: The New York Times reported that the FBI, during an October meeting in Rome, offered him $50,000 to continue investigating Mr. Trump. Presumedly, Mr. Steele would continue to investigate the president as a surrogate for the FBI. The deal, however, did not go through.
Some Republicans have questioned why the FBI would try to put a Democratic-paid opposition researcher on the payroll, especially one who produced a dossier that remains unproven. The Times said the FBI wanted Mr. Steele to provide more proof of his charges.
Mr. Gubarev also is suing BuzzFeed for libel in Florida, where XBT has an office and where his firm Webzilla is incorporated.
The lawsuit calls BuzzFeed’s posting “one of the most reckless and irresponsible moments in modern journalism.”