The mystery surrounding British reports on Russia-Trump ties will have major ramifications.
Imagine a hypothetical situation: A former FSB officer provides a “dirty dossier” about US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton. He has left the Russian intelligence services and now operates his own private intelligence firm, with the implicit approval of the FSB.
Once the dirty dossier is published, its accuracy and sourcing is widely questioned – and even whether the media should have reported on the allegations at all. That FSB officer is then outed in the US press, but the Russian authorities put out a gagging order on their domestic media preventing reporting about him.
That quickly proves pointless – as we live in the internet age. Once his name is made public, a range of anonymous Russian security sources brief the Russian press that the officer is a “highly regarded professional,” and former colleagues rally around him, saying much the same. His reputation is bolstered in order to make the allegations made against Clinton seem more credible. How would the US press respond?
This is in fact exactly what has just happened during Trump’s final approach to the White House, except it wasn’t the FSB – it was the British Secret Intelligence Service, colloquially known as MI6, and it wasn’t a former FSB officer turned private investigator, it was Chris Steele, a former MI6 agent. He is now in hiding and the subject of excited media speculation here in the UK.
Yet, while we would treat the FSB scenario as evidence of nefarious meddling by a foreign state in a US election, we seem totally fine with a former MI6 agent quite possibly doing the same.
There is, however, a subtle difference in the two situations. While the Kremlin scenario would indeed be meddling with full state approval – as is the case with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, for example, the case of Chris Steele highlights a growing movement within the intelligence services of highly motivated officers and former agents, who are willing to take extraordinary, but personal, steps to prevent Donald Trump taking office. There is no evidence to suggest, however, they are doing this with the approval of the British government.
At the time the dossier was going round, I understand from talking to those who know Steele well, that he was privately very concerned about civil unrest on the streets, and was also deeply worried, as many serving intelligence officers were, about Trump’s stance on NATO, and his sympathies for Vladimir Putin.
These are not unusual views among serving Western defence officials, and they are very legitimate criticisms of the pending disaster that is the Trump administration. Steele was also a man who had run MI6 operations in Russia, had been working with the assassinated Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko shortly before his death, and who greatly feared that Trump would take the United States into an alliance with the Kremlin.
Clearly with support from at least some former colleagues at MI6, it begins to look very much like a transatlantic deep state stitch up – in which profit and political motives align perfectly for Steele to produce a dossier that is dirtier than the facts allow. That many in the CIA may feel the same gives the entire affair a deeply anti-democratic tinge.
For further evidence of this, look to the fact that in the final months before the dossier was eventually published by Buzzfeed, Steele is said to have been working for free. Look only to the growing list of people who have leapt to his defence, and you will see a whole movement who, upset by Trump, are willing to defend a former MI6 officer who appears to be subverting the American democratic process.
A “former Foreign Office official” briefed the Guardian newspaper that Steele was a “highly regarded professional“. “British officials suggested” that Steele “would have tapped up his network of sources deep inside the country”, with another citation attributed to a possible third “Foreign Office official”. A former colleague appeared on the flagship current affairs programme BBC Newsnight also vouching for his personal credibility.
The former British ambassador to Russia, Sir Andrew Wood, has also spoken in his defence. The Independent newspaper cites “current and former officials” explaining away discrepancies in the dossier’s findings. Another newspaper claims that “senior British security sources” have put emergency measures in place to protect Steele’s immediate safety.
One well-connected tabloid press editor has, however, suggested the serving MI6 chief, Sir Alex Younger, is “livid”. Of course the MI6 chief would have to say that, and likewise, Number Ten has remained silent on the matter. If these officers are acting without the full approval of the government, this only makes the murmurings coming from within the deeper recesses of MI6 more worrying. Is this a deep state movement actually acting semi-independently from their leadership?
I am no fan of either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin – in fact, I despise both, but we can at least recognise that in the case of Trump, the mechanics of the US election were fairly carried out, and Trump did win. To thwart such a victory would do far more damage to US democracy than even Trump may manage (hopefully).
I wish he hadn’t won, of course, and it is obvious that many within the US and British intelligence community wish he had not either, but democracy is more important than the private political views of intelligence officers. Whether it is the FSB or MI6, the principle of serving or former spies not getting involved with foreign countries elections is sacrosanct. You cannot, on the one hand, denounce Putin for doing it, and then be doing it yourselves.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK and international affairs, including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.