In the hours since a private firm’s intelligence document leaked to the web, alleging 35 pages of President-elect Donald Trump’s dirty laundry—complete with corrupt ties to Russian officials, blackmail, and bodily fluids—Twitter, Facebook, and cable news have become a feeding frenzy. Taken on its face, the report contains potentially devastating revelations. But former intelligence agents see it differently: To borrow the phrase often applied to Trump himself, they’re taking it seriously, not literally.
On Tuesday evening, Buzzfeed News published what it described as a dossier on Trump compiled by a former British intelligence official. The document includes reports from unnamed sources claiming that the Kremlin has cultivated Trump as a Putin-friendly politician for the last half decade, recorded him in blackmail-worthy “perverted sexual acts,” and made secret deals with his campaign to exchange information. Other news organizations chimed in to say they had also obtained the file, but decided not to publish it because they could not confirm its claims. While Buzzfeed acknowledges that the document is unverified, it says it decided to publish it so that “Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”
At the very least, the document is no hoax: According to CNN and the Guardian, senior intelligence officials presented a two-page summary of its contents to both Trump and President Obama. Trump, for his part, denied the report immediately and furiously. “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” the President-elect wrote on Twitter, in a rare all-caps missive.
But those who spent their careers in the intelligence world are reading the report with more tempered skepticism, what ex-CIA analyst Patrick Skinner describes as “interested caution.” He says he’s neither dismissing the report nor taking its claims at face value, but like other intelligence agency alums WIRED spoke to, called it “raw intelligence” that would require far more work before it can be considered useful evidence.
“I imagine a lot more will come out, and much will be nothing and perhaps some of it will be meaningful, and perhaps even devastating,” says Skinner, who now works for the Soufan Group, an intelligence consultancy. But he warns that raw intelligence—information which hasn’t been corroborated or confirmed—like this shouldn’t be released to the public, and is impossible to assess on its own. “One of the reasons why the intelligence community doesn’t release raw or even finished intelligence, to say nothing of a privately funded, untrained…source like in this case, is that people would freak out with the day-to-day drip that might not be anything once it’s placed in context and vetted with multiple sources.”
It’s really hard to tell whether any of the info is actually true, or just a very exciting and expensively produced fan-fiction novel. Matt Tait, former GCHQ intelligence analyst.
Some former intelligence staffers are even more dubious. “Bluntly, it looks like an ex-field officer who’s got some interesting sources, but who has no idea how to compile raw HUMINT into usable intelligence,” says Matt Tait, a former staffer of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency. (“HUMINT” stands for “human intelligence,” information obtained from human sources, as opposed to SIGINT, or “signals intelligence,” gathered from intercepted communications.) With its sources redacted and none of the “confidence markings” intelligence agencies use to distinguish which claims are most credible, the document is tough to parse, Tait says.
“The key to usable HUMINT is distinguishing the real, highly placed sources from the bullshitting wannabes who pretend they’re highly placed sources by making shit up that fits the public facts,” says Tait. “In this case, the doc gives no indication that the company has done work to rigorously separate the two…and consequently it’s really hard to tell whether any of the info is actually true, or just a very exciting and expensively produced fan-fiction novel.”
Get To the Source
According to CNN and the Guardian, which published stories mentioning the report without releasing the document itself, the dossier’s author is someone whom US intelligence officials consider credible, with a reputation for reliability and a wide network of Russian contacts.
But just as important as the source of the report is that source’s sources, says ex-CIA analyst Aki Peritz. “We don’t know how long they’ve been reporting, if they’re verifiable, truthful sources,” says Peritz, now an adjunct professor at American University. “Absent understanding who the sources actually are and their ability to gain correct information, it’s really hard to make heads or tails out of this.”
Peritz notes, though, that the report is still useful. Some of its claims could be verified—and may have been already—with more investigation. He points, as an example, to a part of the report that alleged Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen flew to Prague in August of last year to meet with Kremlin officials. “Maybe we have a source in Prague that could pinpoint him at a specific time,” says Peritz. (Cohen, for his part, wrote on Twitter Tuesday night that he had never been to Prague, and added a photo of the cover of his passport.)
The fact that both Obama and Trump were briefed on the report in a meeting with the heads of the NSA, CIA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence suggests that US intelligence agencies at least consider its contents important, if not altogether true, says Susan Hennessey, a former NSA lawyer. Senator John McCain personally delivered a copy of the report to FBI Director James Comey in December, according to CNN. And in a Senate hearing today, Ron Wyden (D-OR) pressed Comey to reveal whether the FBI was investigating Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, a tactic Wyden has used in the past to call attention to the existence of classified information without revealing it. The Guardian also reported Tuesday that the FBI had sought, and was at least temporarily denied, a warrant to monitor the communications of four Trump staffers in its investigation of their ties to Russia.
“My general take is that the intelligence community and law enforcement seem to be taking these claims seriously. That itself is highly significant. But it is not the same as these allegations being verified,” says Hennessey, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Even if this was an intelligence community document—which it isn’t—this kind of raw intelligence is still treated with skepticism.”
The intelligence report, in other words, shouldn’t be accepted as fact. But neither should it be dismissed as fiction. As with all raw intelligence, the intelligence community’s task will be separating the two. And with its subject set to control the world’s most powerful office—and the agencies involved—in just over a week, the time left to do so may be quickly running out.
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