A newly released snippet of a deposition with the ex-British spy behind the Trump-Russia dossier describes some of the steps he took to verify information he collected for it in 2016, including pulling from a user-generated citizen journalism initiative by CNN, iReport, which no longer operates.
Christopher Steele admitted during a lawsuit deposition that he used internet searches and unverified information to support details he had gathered about a web company mentioned in the dossier, according to select pages of his deposition transcript that a federal court unsealed this week.
But Steele limited his answers about how he verified information about the web companies who claimed they were defamed. He would not explain, for instance, what else he did or sources he used to verify information in the dossier about Webzilla, its parent company XBT and their Russian founder Aleksej Gubarev, who were named in the dossier. He did not have to describe during the deposition all the steps he took to collect or check the information because of terms set by the court.
But he could talk about web searches — and how he didn’t realize one article he found in his research was a submission from a “random person,” as an attorney pointed out, rather than a news report.
Steele testified that he used a 2009 article from the crowdsourced news site CNN iReport, for instance, to check information he learned about Webzilla, one of the three related entities that had sued BuzzFeed for defamation. BuzzFeed published the dossier in full — explaining they hadn’t verified it — on January 10, 2017, after CNN reported that President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump had been briefed about it.
When asked if he had an understanding of what CNN iReport was, Steele said he did not know. He thought the information on the site had “some kind of CNN status. Albeit that it may be an independent person posting on the site,” Steele said during the deposition.
CNN iReport was a separate citizen journalism initiative from CNN’s editorial news service that allowed users to contribute stories, photos or videos.
“Do you understand that they have no connection to any CNN reporters?” an attorney asked Steele during his deposition last June. “I do not,” he answered, according to the transcript.
The acknowledgment has emboldened some critics of the dossier who claim the more explosive points in it are false and unsubstantiated.
On Saturday via Twitter, the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders pointed to Steele’s work as tainted because of what was learned in Steele’s deposition..
“The author of the fake Russia dossier - paid for by Hillary and the DNC and used to launch the witch hunt against President @realDonaldTrump - now admits he relied on claims posted by a random person on a CNN site ‘not edited, fact-checked or screened,’” Sanders wrote on Twitter.
Trump has denied the allegations in the Russian dossier, calling it “fake news.”
Webzilla’s mention in the dossier was central to the lawsuit’s question of whether BuzzFeed defamed the company and others by making the document public. The company and its founder say the dossier’s assertions about its role in the Russian hack of Democratic emails were wrong. Soon after BuzzFeed published the dossier in full in January 2018, the news site redacted the internet company’s name and related names in its online story.
Ultimately, a federal judge dismissed the web entrepreneur’s lawsuit against Buzzfeed before the case could go to trial. BuzzFeed’s publication of the dossier was protected from a defamation lawsuit under New York law, the judge found, because the document had been shared among top intelligence officials in the US government and discussed with then-President Obama.
Sources and verification
Val Gurvits, an attorney for Gubarev, XBT and Webzilla, acknowledged on Saturday that Steele could not answer questions during the deposition about what he did to verify the parts of the dossier unrelated to them.
But Steele also wouldn’t describe what else he did to verify the dossier’s information, or where he got it from, because of the court-ordered parameters of the interview.
“I believe the only step I can describe within the bounds of the order is what we could call an open source search,” Steele said about his efforts to check details about the web companies. “Other efforts to verify relate to sources or sources and, therefore, are not allowed under the terms of the order.”
Steele also used sources he trusted in Russia and elsewhere—some gathered over a career as a Moscow-based spy for British intelligence – to gather information in the dossier, according to the case file.
In a separate transcript released in the case, another witness testified that Steele showed him a list of names that were his sources for the dossier. The witness, David Kramer, a former US State Department official who, alongside then-Sen. John McCain, reviewed the dossier from Steele, said he recognized names of the sources because of his own work about Russia.
At least one name Kramer recognized as a “serious high-level source.” Kramer explained that he believed those sources passed the information through an intermediary before it got to Steele and into the dossier.
Steele, however, “felt that based on the sources and based on his own company’s track record, he felt that at least he had the best sources possible to provide information,” Kramer said in his own deposition in December 2017. (Kramer showed a copy of the dossier to Buzzfeed, which the news organization later published photos of.)
The dossier’s intent was to gather research for private clients, and not to validate the information at the same level of scrutiny as journalists, Steele said in his deposition.
The deposition took place in London over the summer after a legal fight over whether Steele would have to answer questions. The questions attorneys were allowed to ask and that Steele would have to answer, ultimately, were very limited.
Steele answered questions for hours in a somewhat tortured process, with three sets of lawyers wrangling over American and British laws.
The most salacious claims in the dossier are still unverified. But many of the allegations that form the bulk of the memos have held up over time. Those include the claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and the claim that there were contacts between Trump’s team and Russia.
This notably includes Steele’s claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw an effort to interfere in the 2016 election. It also includes allegations of secret contacts between Trump’s team and the Russians during the campaign.
Steele gathered this stunning information months before US intelligence agencies and Robert Mueller’s office of special counsel publicly described the Russian meddling in the election.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.