Did Christopher Steele Write His Dossier, or Did a Russian Associate?

Among the few givens in the unfolding drama of alleged Russia-Trump collusion is that former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele wrote the Donald Trump-Russia dossier, alternately known as the “Steele Dossier.”

This is the notorious document that purports to detail “Republican candidate Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and compromising relationship with the Kremlin.”

The above quote is from the subhead of the document, titled “Company Intelligence Report 2016/080.”  Yet the same subhead hints at a disturbing pattern evident throughout the document: it appears to be written by someone whose native language is something other than English.

The phrase should read, “Republican candidate Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and his compromising relationship with the Kremlin.”  As shall be seen, it is hard to believe that Christopher Steele actually wrote the original phrase or much of the rest of the eponymous dossier.

Christopher Steele, or “Chris Steele,” as he bylined his reporting, attended Cambridge University and wrote for the student publication, Varsity.  At Cambridge, he also served as president of the Cambridge Union Society, a debating club.

Contemporaries remember him as an “avowedly [l]eft-wing student with CND credentials.”  CND is shorthand for “Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,” a British organization that was particularly active when Steele arrived at Cambridge in the early 1980s.  At the time, MI5 monitored CND for its reported communist ties.

As the British Guardian observed in an article on Steele, “Cambridge had produced some of MI6’s most talented cold war officials.  A few of them, it turned out – to great embarrassment – had secret second jobs with the KGB.”  But this is a story for another day.

The story for today is how a Cambridge journalist and debater could write a sentence like the following: “Alpha held ‘kompromat’ on Putin and his corrupt business activities from the 1990s whilst although not personally overly bothered by Alpha’s failure to reinvest the proceeds of its TNK oil company sale into the Russian economy since, the Russian president was able to use pressure on this count from senior Kremlin colleagues as a lever on Fridman and AVEN to make them do his political bidding.”

The articles we have unearthed from Steele’s tenure at Varsity read like someone who knew his own language.  Much of the Steele dossier reads like the sentence above: a syntactical nightmare with a near random use of punctuation.

The author of the dossier was, however, schooled in British English.  The document contains distinctly English usages such as “programme,” “defence,” “authorised,” and “manoeuvre.”  The use of such words as “regime,” “apparatus,” and “compatriot” indicates someone fluent in Cold War terminology.

That said, too many of the sentences read as though written by an individual not fully fluent in English, British or American.  Here is one of several: “Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow but in the end Trump had had to settle for the use of extensive sexual services there from local prostitutes rather than business success.”  The very idea of linking “sexual services” and “business success” is jarring, as is the stand-alone use of “business success.”

There are several basic misuses of the language that should have cautioned officials who read this document.  One sentence, for instance, begins with the phrase “Speaking to a trusted compatriot.”  After parsing the sentence, it becomes clear that the author meant “According to a trusted compatriot.”  The “speaking to” misdirection makes a jumble out of the sentence.

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