“Are we in a Bond film or in a Bourne film. I can’t decide,” New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman tweeted in the wake of Buzzfeed’s posting of the explosive dossier on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner: 'I would seriously look at a run' for office Priebus: Syria, China moves part of 'Trump Doctrine' Poll: Most millennials disapprove of Trump MORE and Russia. Probably neither.
When the dust settles, the appropriate comparison may be with “Our Man in Havana,” the novel written by Graham Greene, himself a onetime spook, that poked fun at the intelligence services and the willingness spies to believe what local informants tell them.
Reading the memos that form the basis of what is increasingly looking like a dodgy dossier on Trump, there are times it is hard not to think of “Our Man in Havana.” Contradictions are left unexplained. And the emphasis is on the salacious — hence the claims about Trump at the Ritz Carlton hotel.
Regarding business deals, the report claims: “The Kremlin cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far from reasons unknown Trump had not taken up any of them.”
But in another memorandum we get this: “Regarding Trump’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow.”
So which is it? He tried to secure business deals and failed or was offered lucrative deals but for unknown reasons didn’t take them up?
Are we in a Bond film or in a Bourne film? I can't decide https://t.co/CJT5WnL9fi— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) January 11, 2017
Likewise, there are contradictions about the reported position of the then head of the Kremlin’s Presidential Administration, Sergei Borisovich Ivanov. In one memorandum he’s described as being more cautious about Russian meddling in the election. “Head of PA Ivanov laments Russian intervention in U.S. Presidential election and black PR use against Clinton and the DNC.”
But elsewhere he’s portrayed as one of the more hawkish among the advisers of Russian President Vladimir Putin about Russian interference. Along with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, it is reported in a memo that he “had advised Putin that the pro-Trump, anti-Clinton operation/s would be both effective and plausibly deniable with little blowback.”
There is no effort to explain the different descriptions of Ivanov’s stance. Which one is true?
Throughout the dossier there are no caveats. No pulling together of information; no effort to consider the material as a whole. The “product” is certainly not finished intelligence. Baroness Neville-Jones, the former head of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee and the minister of state for security and counterterrorism in David Cameron’s government, stressed in remarks to Sky News Thursday that the dossier is “a piece of private enterprise by a former member of the service. It does not have the standard of something produced by an agency.”
The onetime spook in question, Christopher Steele, has gone to ground, fleeing his home outside London for fear of Kremlin reprisals, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
Comparing Steele to Green’s anti-hero, Wormold, may be unfair. The Guardian newspaper today reports praise for Steele’s skills from those who have worked with him in the past. Some former colleagues of his I have with spoken agree he was a good agent. (Others make more disparaging comments.)
The former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who produced Donald Trump Russian dossier, is 'terrified for his safety' https://t.co/8wGKqhcy8x— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) January 12, 2017
One of the big questions hanging over Steele’s probe into Trump is how good and relevant his own sources are in Russia now. He has long been gone from Moscow and many of his Russian intelligence sources are likely to have retired.
Is what he picked up the gossip of former Russian officials and intelligence officers? If so, their testimony is less relevant than current officials and spooks and to make contact with active intelligence officials is much harder now than it was when he was working for MI6 in the Russian capital. “Things were tightened up once Putin took office,” says Oliver Carroll, editor of the Moscow Times. “No one would get a look in with Russian security services now. They would have to be long-standing contacts,” he adds.
It remains unclear if the dossier that has been shopped around to media organizations in Washington for weeks is all his “product.” Could he be responsible for the misspellings of, for example, the Alfa Bank as “Alpha Bank” — a financial institution he would know well having served in Moscow?
Intelligence historian Michael Smith points out the absence of any company letterhead on the memos — Steele’s co-owned London-based firm Orbis Business Intelligence was retained at least at the start for the investigation into Trump’s Russia connection. Smith does not believe the dossier Buzzfeed made public this week is Steele’s original report, noting also the different typefaces used from memo to memo.
Steele worked in Moscow for MI6 and his first ambassador was Sir Roderic Braithwaite, who later became chairman of the joint intelligence committee in London. In 2003, Braithwaite delivered a lecture on the value and limits of intelligence.
Among his comments. "Just because information is gained by secret means, however ingenious, does not mean that it is necessarily either true or useful.”
And he noted in the lecture: "Intelligence agencies are no more immune to error than other human organizations. The technical intelligence agencies — codebreakers, satellite photographers, eavesdroppers — produce intelligence that is in a sense documentary. Even so it may be neither timely nor relevant. And historians know that documents too can be ambiguous.
That is even more true of the stuff produced by spies. Spies are vulnerable to human error: greed, fear, a desire to please, an urge to fantasize, and the practical difficulty of operating in secret. Graham Green's novel “Our Man in Havana” is a cruel satire. But like any good satire, it has a grain of truth in it.”
Jamie Dettmer is a former comment editor at The Hill. He is an international correspondent mainly covering now Europe and the Middle East for VOA. He was recently reporting from the front lines in Mosul.
The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill