Retired British intelligence officer Chris Steele, whose dossier takes to a new level the investigation of whether Russia attempted to influence the US election for the benefit of Donald Trump, learned his spycraft from the best.
As in the American intelligence community, the selection, vetting, training, education and seasoning of the veteran operative in British intelligence is the result of an extraordinary filtering process.
It begins with strict and high educational standards, moves through a series of interviews to a day of high-pressure competitive scenario work and psychometric, literacy, numeracy and analytical testing against several other candidates. There is a final individual assessment and judgment hurdle to pass before a lengthy vetting process, conducted by the intelligence agencies themselves. While no system is flawless, this does produce a stream of very bright, highly motivated people determined to act with integrity to solve modern intelligence problems.
A key point is that this selection and subsequent training not only involve learning investigative tradecraft equal to the best in the world but also impart a fundamental critical mindset about sources and information: Doubt sources, but protect them. Question new information. Validate reports with independent sources. Always seek collateral. Consider alternative explanations. And maintain an objective and independent perspective. Above all, never let politics or bias color your analysis.
Having known Chris Steele professionally for more than 20 years, we know that one should not question his integrity, excellence and diligence in intelligence work. He knows Russia exceptionally well and has relationships and experience in the country to support this type of analysis. For obvious reasons we assume that he cannot name his sources, but we do not doubt that he will have brought the same professional rigor to this study as he did to his work in the intelligence service.
Does this mean that everything in Chris' dossier is true? No. Intelligence collection and analysis are always subject to error and a range of opinion, including among seasoned colleagues. Aspects of the report may prove to be wrong upon further investigation. Rather the only conclusion we should draw at this point is that the dossier contains serious allegations, was made by a serious and credible intelligence professional, and that the US intelligence community reviewed the material and deemed it worthy of further investigation and chose to include it in the information submitted to President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump
But there are causes for concern. The first is that the allegations in the dossier are quite serious. Should they be corroborated, it would indicate that Russia's reach and influence over American politics is not only deeper than suspected, but potentially active in the form of leverage against the President-elect and other elected officials.
Second and perhaps indicative of Trump's own concern, we have witnessed a hypersensitive and aggressive reaction from the Trump camp since reports of the dossier emerged. Rather than downplaying the report and simply expressing confidence that the intelligence community investigation will prove it all false, the first reaction of the Trump team has been to attack the news organization that broke the story (CNN), the media site that published the full dossier (BuzzFeed), and the intelligence community decision to include a portion of the material in the presidential briefing. The President-elect went so far as to call CNN "fake news" and to taunt the CNN reporter in Wednesday's press briefing trying to ask him a question. This kind of all-out political attack on respected media that publish something critical of Trump is a troubling autocratic response.
Equally so, the implication from Trump that his own intelligence community leaders will dismiss such allegations and reports against him indicates a willingness to politicize the intelligence community to serve the interests of the next president. The conclusion that Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian influence operation on the US election is not the invention of leaders but the conclusion of the rank-and-file analysts across the different agencies.
Yet Trump has singled out the leaders and said if the president does not agree with the intelligence, intelligence heads will roll. That is a recipe for disaster in terms of creating distrust between the intelligence community and the Trump administration. It also risks distorting intelligence community assessments to avoid the wrath of political disfavor. All of these are the weaknesses found in unprofessional intelligence services typically found in dictatorships, not the United States.
The media and the intelligence community must not bow to the immense political pressure and threats of retribution coming from the Trump camp. The integrity and independence of both are key to protecting our democracy.
Editor's Note: Nick Dowling is a former director on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration and is president of IDS International, a government services firm with business in research, training, expeditionary services and cybersecurity. David Handley is a former senior British government official and expert on intelligence and national security. He is an appointed member of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George.
Handley was a colleague of Chris Steele's in service with the British government and has known him for more than 20 years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.