Spooked review: exposé of murky world of private spies is a dodgy dossier itself

Barry Meier brings distasteful characters and episodes to light but is happy to leave out that which does not suit his aims

Christopher Steele, the former UK intelligence officer. Christopher Steele, the former UK intelligence officer. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty ImagesChristopher Steele, the former UK intelligence officer. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

When Christopher Steele’s dossier about Donald Trump’s connections to Russia was published by BuzzFeed News, the salacious part got more attention than anything else.

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But there was something else several reporters thought was much more intriguing: a description of a meeting between Carter Page, a Trump aide, and Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin collaborator and head of the Russian energy giant Rosneft.

The dossier reported that Sechin “was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered PAGE/TRUMP’s associates the brokerage of up to a 19% (privatised) stake in Rosneft in return. PAGE had expressed interest and confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.”

As the Mueller report pointed out, the dossier was wrong about the identity of the Rosneft official Page met: it was actually one of Sechin’s deputies, Andrey Baranov. The dossier was also off by half a percentage point about the size of the privatization.

But just five months after Page’s Moscow meeting, Rosneft did in fact announce the privatization of 19.5% of the giant company, the largest privatization in Russian history. And Carter Page flew to Moscow the day after the deal was announced, for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery.

Reuters assigned no fewer than 11 reporters to try to find out who actually purchased the shares in the company and where the financing came from. But the resulting story said the “full identity of the new owners of the Rosneft stake” remained “a mystery”, as did “the complete source of the funds with which they bought it”.

In testimony before the House intelligence committee, Page denied discussing “specifics” about sanctions with the Rosneft official. But when he was asked if they discussed the privatization of the energy giant, he said Baranov “may briefly have mentioned it”.

As Martin Longman wrote for Washington Monthly: “When we try to assess whether the Steele dossier is ‘fake news’, as [Trump] insists that it is, we should keep this Rosneft deal in mind. Someone who was just making things up and didn’t have real sources could never have invented something so close to the truth.”

Spooked, by the former New York Times reporter Barry Meier, identifies the Trump dossier as one of its three principal subjects. One might think Steele’s correct prediction of an imminent privatization of Rosneft, and Page’s confirmation that he “may” have been told about it five months before it happened, would at least deserve a paragraph. But only a glancing reference to this story appears.

Asked about this omission, Meier cited an FBI report that quoted a “sub-source” of Steele’s “primary sub-source”, who said there was no evidence Page had been involved in any kind of bribery scheme. Meier concluded there was no evidence that Page had done anything wrong, so he omitted the whole subject.

Another reason for the omission is that including it might have contributed to a more nuanced view of the Steele dossier. Nuance is not one of Meier’s specialties.

Steele was a collaborator of Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who became a private spy. The purpose of Meier’s book is to prove that all private spies are evil, a clear and present danger to ethical journalists like himself. He says he wrote the book because he “wanted to understand how a predatory industry was operating unchecked”.

While Meier never hesitates to attack the speculations of other reporters, the author treats his own guesses as dispositive. He dismisses the idea of an incriminating tape of Trump with Moscow prostitutes because “blackmail works best when only a few people know about it”. If such a tape actually existed, “it was unlikely it would have been the talk of Moscow”. Therefore, it should have been “clear from the start” to Steele that there was a “basic problem with the story”.

However, actual Russian experts have reached the opposite conclusion. John le Carré, for one, told told the New York Times: “As far as Trump, I would suspect they have [kompromat] because they’ve denied it. If they have it and they’ve set Trump up, they’d say, ‘Oh no, we haven’t got anything.’ But to Trump they’re saying, ‘Aren’t we being kind to you?’”

Meier told the Guardian the fact the tape has never become public is another reason to believe it doesn’t exist.

Spooked is both a clip job, frequently relying on other people’s stories, and a hatchet job, making its subjects as unattractive as possible. Meier disparages anyone who has written a story which hasn’t been confirmed by other news outlets, including a reporter for this newspaper.

No detail is too small to contribute to the author’s character assassinations. Simpson, he writes, “had an unhealthy pallor, the apparent result of too much drinking, too little exercise or both … he appeared stiff and slightly robotic”. Simpson is said to have thrown frequent parties in Washington “fueled by lots of alcohol and plenty of pot”.

The book does describe some genuinely loathsome activities, including the alliance between the law firm of the noted litigator David Boies and Black Cube, a private investigation company that employed former Israeli spies.

Boies claimed he was unaware of his firm’s deal with Black Cube, which promised a $300,000 bonus if it stopped the New York Times publishing an exposé of Harvey Weinstein. After Ronan Farrow published details of the deal in the New Yorker, it turned out Boies was representing the Times in an unrelated libel case. The newspaper immediately cut ties.

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Meier includes dozens of other anecdotes that make private spies look very bad. But nearly all have been reported elsewhere, usually with more coherent narratives.

Not surprisingly, two of the book’s principal victims, Simpson and Peter Fritsch, hit back as soon as Spooked was published, alleging Meier had repeatedly asked them for help in his reporting.

Meier acknowledges this at the end of his book, writing: “While I was at the New York Times, I spoke with Glenn Simpson on several occasions though I don’t recall writing anything based on our discussions.” He insisted to the Guardian that the one tip he got from Simpson about the location of court documents pointed him in the wrong direction.

Simpson and Fritsch also accuse Meier of an obvious conflict of interest, because an excerpt from Spooked was published in the business section of the Times, which is edited by Meier’s wife, Ellen Pollock.

Meier told the Guardian there was no conflict, because his wife hadn’t commissioned the excerpt. That was done by one of her colleagues.

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