by BEN SMITH · January 9, 2018
Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Russia investigation. Doug Mills/The New York Times
Exactly one year ago BuzzFeed published what’s now known simply as “the dossier”: a set of reports put together by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele during the 2016 presidential campaign. The 35-page dossier suggested that the Russian government had both compromised and colluded with President-elect Donald Trump.
Our choice to publish the dossier was greeted by outrage from two sources. Journalistic traditionalists didn’t like the idea of sharing an unfiltered, unverified document with the public, whatever the caveats and context. NBC’s Chuck Todd told me on air, “You just published fake news.” Mr. Trump agreed. He described CNN’s reporting on the dossier as “fake news” and called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.”
But a year of government inquiries and blockbuster journalism has made clear that the dossier is unquestionably real news. That’s a fact that has been tacitly acknowledged even by those who opposed our decision to publish. It has helped journalists explain to their audience the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election. And Mr. Trump and his allies have seized on the dossier in their efforts to discredit the special counsel leading the investigation, Robert Mueller.
Without the dossier, Americans would have found it difficult to understand the actions of their elected representatives and government officials. Their posture toward Mr. Trump was, we now know even more comprehensively than we did in January 2017, shaped by Mr. Steele’s report. The Russia investigation, meanwhile, didn’t turn out to be some minor side story but instead the central challenge to Mr. Trump’s presidency.
When we published the dossier, we knew a lot: We knew that it had been written by the former head of the Russia desk at Britain’s main foreign intelligence agency, a man whose job had made him a leading source on Russian espionage. We knew that key members of the Senate — Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, and John McCain, the Arizona Republican — had acted on its contents. We had also learned that intelligence officials had briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Trump on the dossier, and that the F.B.I. was already looking into it.
We didn’t discount the arguments against publishing salacious allegations — which reporters do all the time in covering lawsuits, internal investigations or reports like Mr. Steele’s. And we understand why President Trump’s supporters remain furious at the airing of a disturbingly vivid unproven allegation about encounters with prostitutes.
But we never bought the notion, made by the traditionalists, that a main threat to journalism is that journalists might be too transparent with their audience. Keeping the reporting process wrapped in mystery only helps those who oppose the free press. This is why The New York Times posts leaked audio recordings, and why news organizations routinely publish raw court documents underlying their articles.
We strongly believed that publishing the disputed document whose existence we and others were reporting was in the public interest.
Since we published, the public has learned a great deal more about how seriously the F.B.I. took the dossier. The F.B.I., CNN reported, used the dossier to justify its effort to spy on an American citizen, and reimbursed Mr. Steele for some of his expenses. The BBC reported that the dossier was a “road map” to the F.B.I. investigation. Fox News recently reported that a top Department of Justice official met with Mr. Steele during the 2016 campaign. And on Tuesday, the public was given a glimpse, in the release of secret testimony, into the fierce battle between Senate Democrats and Republicans over the dossier and how the F.B.I. made use of it during the 2016 campaign.
As the seriousness of the Russia investigation has become clearer, the pro-Trump line has shifted from dismissing the dossier to stressing its role in the investigation: The dossier, some of Mr. Trump’s defenders now say, played too big a part, given that a portion of Mr. Steele’s funding came from political enemies of Mr. Trump, including the Democratic National Committee. “Are we in the midst of a major criminal investigation against the president of the United States as a result of this dodgy dossier?” asked Tom Fitton, a Trump ally, on “Fox & Friends” recently.
While Mr. Trump’s camp dismiss the dossier as malicious fiction or pure political opportunism, some elements have been corroborated. For example, that the Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort hid payments for his work in Ukraine, as federal authorities have alleged; that the Russian diplomat Mikhail Kalugin was withdrawn suddenly from the United States; and that Mr. Trump sought, but never consummated, business deals in Russia.
Mr. Steele also reported, in pages submitted just 11 days after a Russian lawyer handed Mr. Trump’s aides what had been promised to be negative information on Hillary Clinton in Trump Tower, that “the Kremlin had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
“One large portion of the dossier is crystal-clear, certain, consistent and corroborated,” a C.I.A. veteran, John Sipher, wrote recently. “Russia’s goal all along has been to do damage to America and our leadership role in the world.”
For all these reasons, the chorus of criticism of our decision to publish has faded. I haven’t had a single person approach me to say, “I wish I hadn’t read the dossier, and wish I had less insight into the forces at play in America.” Do you feel that way? Does anyone?
Ben Smith is the editor in chief of BuzzFeed News.