Interview with Barry Meier, author of "Spooked"

The longtime New York Times reporter asks of his colleagues, "When will we learn?"

Throughout the Trump years, it made sense that reporters chased sexy-sounding Russia stories. What journalist with a pulse wouldn’t? These were riveting tales about the president of the United States, under investigation by the FBI and other agencies, who was apparently really suspected of traitorous dealings with a foreign dictator.

A lot of the loudest headlines grew out of the private “dossier” of a British ex-spy named Christopher Steele, whose reports told of a “well-developed conspiracy” between Russians and Trump, who was supposedly being blackmailed for cavorting with peeing prostitutes. News organizations devoted mountains of ink to portraits of Steele and serious examinations of his allegations. But when Special Counsel Robert Mueller first and then Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz returned damning verdicts on Steele, journalists weren’t mad about being taken for a ride.

Barry Meier, in his new book Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies, fires back on behalf of his profession at the private oppo hounds who fed so many of these dicey stories into the public conversation. He also wonders about the reporters who were “in the car that crashed” and still haven’t said anything, saying, “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads.”

Below, an interview with the author on the Steele Dossier, the reaction within the business to his book, and the problem of checking sources in the digital age:

TK: There’s a line in the book about private research firms like Fusion-GPS: “The big money is made not by exposing the truth, but by concealing it.” Is private spying the same business as journalism, except to a different end? Or is it something fundamentally different?

Barry Meier: I would argue that within journalism, that mission is singular. Our mission is to collect facts, to ascertain the truth as best as we can. One of the things that I was always struck by with Fusion-GPS, the firm that Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch formed, was ... Just to digress a little bit, I decided to focus on them not simply because of the dossier. I was really interested in them because here were two people, particularly Glenn Simpson, whom I knew by reputation. I didn’t know Peter Fritsch at all by reputation, but I knew Glenn’s reputation. I had read some stories he had done, when they came out in the Journal, when he was a reporter there. I thought, “It’d be really interesting to kind of take someone who does or did what I do for a living, and kind of follow them into this world and see what happens to them in this world, how they change, how they deal with these conflicts, etc.” Their motto or Glenn’s motto that he adopted was so called “journalism for rent.”

They say, “We apply the same standards and ethics that we would use as a journalist, but they’re available to the private sector. But we really don’t do anything different than we would do as a journalist. We’re truth seekers.” But journalists do not rent out their services. People who think of themselves as journalists and rent out those talents are no longer journalists.

There’s a bright line here, and regardless of whether you think this journalist is good or not good, or whatever the case may be, these other folks, while doing research, while doing the superficial work of journalism, are guided by very different incentives. We, as journalists — or I’ll speak for myself, but I always liked to believe, and maybe fool myself in that belief, that I had a sense of morality, what was right, what was wrong, that my work was aimed at serving some sort of public good, service. Exposing a bad drug, or a device, or a bad actor, or whatever the case may be. That doesn’t play in this area, because that’s not what you’re being hired to do.

TK: You note that a lot of journalists assumed that Steele’s sources were MI6 sources. Do you think that the veneer of his career allowed the story to spread a lot more than it would have if people knew who the sources were actually?

Barry Meier: Absolutely. I mean, there’s no doubt about that in my mind. I have this image of Christopher Steele. He’s got a beautiful suit on, he has this beautiful coiffed hair. He looks and acts like a former MI6 agent, which he was. He talks the talk, walks the walk in England. He’s very calm and collected. I mean this is based on descriptions that people are giving to me. I kind of had the sense of ... You know those Russian stacking dolls?

TK: Matryoshka dolls?

Barry Meier: Right. The outside that you see is Christopher Steele. You’re thinking, “Wow, I’m impressed. Here’s this ex-MI6 guy, and he is sharing this incredibly explosive intelligence with me.” You’re flattered by that. You think, “I’m being made part of a secret. This guy is opening up this secret world to me, and he’s my guy.” But you start pulling out other dolls inside of it, and at the very bottom is this guy, Igor Danchenko, who was his helper, and got into Russia and was speaking to his buddies over drinks, and gathering this stuff.

I’m not knocking Igor Danchenko, but think about what would have happened if this same crew of journalists had gone to the Tabard Inn, and instead of meeting Christopher Steele, met Igor Danchenko. Most of them would have said, “Thanks, Igor. Great meeting you, good luck.”

TK: There’s a really interesting part of the story in which the FBI attempts to hire Steele and compensate him significantly to help with their investigation. But, he doesn’t go for it. What’s your take on why that was? It seems connected to the question of why Fritsch and Simpson didn’t drop what you call their “October Surprise” about the FBI investigation. They all knew about this Crossfire Hurricane investigation, correct?

Barry Meier: They knew about it. There’s no dispute about that, because they write about that in their book. I remember reading that thinking, “Wait a minute, maybe you didn’t have great stuff in the dossier. If you really wanted to mess with Trump’s head or mess with their Trump campaign, you had this basically loaded gun in your hand, but you didn’t pull the trigger.” They were claiming in the book, “Well, we didn’t want to mess up the FBI investigation. We didn’t want to blah, blah, blah.” You’re getting paid to do whatever you can to hamstring somebody, and they didn’t.

TK: But why Steele doesn’t go for the FBI offer? From the outside, it seems like one obvious answer is he didn’t have anything, and that would have come out.

Barry Meier: I wouldn’t stop anybody from speculating about that.

The other possibility is he’s worried that disclosing his collector, I’m sorry, revealing the identity of his collector, is going to jeopardize his collector. That’s on the positive side.

On the negative side: “Okay, they’re going to go interview my collector, and they’re going to come back and tell me, ‘What the fuck is going on? What are we supposed to make out of this? He’s telling us a different story than you’re telling us in these memos.’” You can take your pick as to what his motivation was, or whether he had multiple reasons not to do it.

TK: What about Simpson and Fritsch? What would be the other explanations for why they wouldn’t go public with that story?

Barry Meier: I really don’t know. I would love to ask them, “Why didn’t you do this? You had a real piece of news in your hands.” Unless they had an agreement. The only rational explanation I came up with is they had a deal with Steele, under which they would only reveal things if Steele approved them. They weren’t involved in this approach, the FBI approached Steele. Steele has a relationship with the FBI, so if they were going to publicize this meeting, absent Steele’s approval, they would essentially be violating whatever trust or agreement they had with him. I could see that being a potential reason. I mean I’m trying to give as positive a view as possible.

TK: Your book is obviously very critical of how the media in general dealt with this material. What have some of your colleagues said about it? What have been some of the reactions from people in the business?

Barry Meier: Personally, the reactions have all been positive, from people that I know in the business, who know me, or are friends of mine. Obviously your friends are going to lie to you half the time. There has not been a single person who I’ve interacted with, who I have respect for, even if they’re not a friend, who has called me up and said, “You know, Barry, you’re an asshole,” or, “You know, Barry, I used to respect you, you’ve blown it.” Nothing like that whatsoever.

The Times ran the excerpt of the book. New York Magazine ran an excerpt from the book. I think in terms of kind of news people, it’s been personally a very, very receptive response. I know you wrote about this a little bit in the column, and Mike Isikoff pointed this out, that I wasn’t doing a lot of television on MSNBC or CNN. As to why, they’re better judges of that than me.

I once wrote this book Painkiller, that was the first book about the opioid crisis and the Sackler family. When Beth Macy was writing her book Dopesick, which came out I guess about four or five years ago, I didn’t know her, but I got a call from her. She was gushing about the book, and she was saying, “Everyone in medical school should read your book. We should understand the power of the pharmaceutical industry, and how its potential to affect and corrupt the practice of medicine.” I’m not saying that my book should be read by anyone or everyone, but I do think — this book in many ways is not simply about the private intelligence industry, it’s about journalism, and how we as journalists go about doing our work.

I was sort of surprised that people that write about journalism, that are media critics, for the lack of a better word, didn’t and haven’t, or at least haven’t thus far paid more attention to the book.

TK: It’s really a huge cautionary tale about sourcing, isn’t it?

Barry Meier: Yes, and how you go about scrutinizing material that’s being presented to you. I told this story before, I’ll repeat it very quickly. When I first started working on the stories about Oxycontin for the Times, this is going back to 2001, Purdue Pharma, in their promotion of the drug, kept pointing to these three critical studies that they contended showed that this drug was safe at very high dosages, and could be used in a patient ad nauseum. Journalists who were writing about this kept repeating that there are these three studies, and blah, blah, blah. I kind of said to myself, “What the fuck’s the deal with these three studies?” In the book I call them the Holy Trinity.

I went in, and they were very obscure studies. I had to go to the National Library of Medicine to find them, and when I finally found them, I realized they have nothing to do, number one, with the long-term use of opioids, narcotics. In many cases or in several cases, they argued against the long-term use of narcotics, and basically Purdue Pharma had cherry picked either data points or slight passages from these studies, to try to make their case. But when you read the stories, you don’t get that. It’s like saying, “Whoa, this book has really great details,” that’s in the blurb, but then it gets cut off, but the next sentence says, “But the book really sucks.” It was mainly, “This says this,” but then the next five words say, “You should never use this drug under any circumstances.”

It’s only good when you go back and you look at the real source material. Can you, as a journalist, assess the claims that are being made, that are based on it? For me, working as a reporter largely in the area of medicine and health, there is kind of an evidentiary basis that you can go back and examine. Once you get pulled into this realm of intelligence, there’s no evidentiary basis, it’s hearsay. It’s like, “Do you trust your source? Do you have this from enough people to be able to go to the bank on it?” It’s like you wrote about with the WMDs. Do you buy into what your sources are saying, without anything factual or evidentiary to support it?

In some way, this is what happened here. It was kind of a replay of that, in the sense that people were being presented with claims, and were unable, unwilling, or whatever, to scrutinize the underlying evidence behind those claims, or even scrutinize the people, because probably they couldn’t scrutinize that, but they were not even willing to scrutinize the people who were bringing them this material.

For example, did they scrutinize Fusion GPS, or did they just open the door and say, “Hey Glenn and Peter, great to see you guys. What have you got for us today?” Right? Or did they go back and look at the type of people that Fusion GPS was working for in the run up to the dossier, and the types of tactics they were using when they were working on behalf of those people? Did they swoon when they saw Christopher Steele, because he fit their model of what an ex-MI6 agent should look at, or did they scrutinize what they were being told about him, which was that he was a big wheel in the FIFA investigation, and he had worked to help crack the poisoning of Litvinenko in London?

I took the trouble of calling up a reporter by the name of Andrew Jennings who actually was the person who broke the FIFA story. He’s even older than I am. I call him up, and I’m on Skype. It’s like I’m being transported back into a Dickens novel. This guy with white hair is sitting in this office with bookcases that are sagging behind him, so we’re talking. He’s telling me exactly what Christopher Steele did, which was some things, but not something really spectacular. Then I asked him, “Have any other reporters called you up?” The answer was no. To me, that became very telling.

That, to me, is exactly what reporters shouldn’t be doing. I’m not saying Christopher Steele misled people, but he was being presented by other people as having done certain things, as a way of fluffing up his reliability, and his access. Why would you believe that? If a chemical company or a drug company came to you and said, “This thing works, it’s fantastic, there are these studies that prove it,” wouldn’t you as a reporter want to look at those studies before you wrote about it?

But here we have a situation where Fusion GPS, these hired operatives come in and say, “We’ve got this great stuff. We may not be so sure it’s right, but it’s fantastic, and here’s this guy who got it, and he’s got this incredible source in Russia.” Wouldn’t you want to apply that same level of scrutiny to Fusion GPS, Christopher Steele, the claims, or anyone else. I’m not singling them out, just that why did reporters not apply the same level of scrutiny to this, as they would normally do in other circumstances? That’s what I found most troubling.

TK: When this subject comes up, a lot of reporters will say, “Well, we didn’t technically do anything wrong, because all we were doing was reporting on something that’s true. The FBI did take possession of the Steele dossier at some point. They were investigating.” For instance, Michael Isikoff’s story, on the facts was mostly correct, right?

Barry Meier: Correct.

TK: What’s the response to a reporter who says, “Well, what’s wrong with that? I was writing something that was technically true.”

Barry Meier: Mike made that point that he felt comfortable doing his story because he was able to confirm that the FBI was investigating Carter Page, and they were. That’s a fact, that they were investigating Carter Page.

But I felt that the Horowitz report did a great job in justifying, or at least giving a basis for the FBI, probable cause for the FBI to begin the Russia probe. Similarly, it was fair in its criticisms of how it acquired the FISA warrant on Carter Page. I’m not saying that in any way, shape, or form, that people were wrong to report on an FBI investigation. However, that’s not what most of this reporting was about. Much of this reporting was using the kind of fig leaf, if you will, of the FBI investigation, to keep promulgating stuff that was in the dossier.

I think the FBI has been very clear that the dossier played no role in the launching of its investigation, and that yes, they did take things from the dossier and used it in the Carter Page FISA warrant, and used it improperly, according to Horowitz. They began their investigation independent of Christopher Steele, and their investigation continued independent of Christopher Steele. But the only thing that was out there for news organizations to latch onto was the dossier. It sort of became a rider, or rode along with the FBI investigation, and it did it, remarkably enough, for three years, up until the point when Muller’s going to make his report, and there’s nothing in it essentially about the dossier. It’s like nothing. More importantly, there’s actually information in it that disputes what’s in the dossier, specifically in the Michael Cohen trip to Prague.

One of the things that was kind of mind boggling to me, again as an observer, because like everybody else, when the dossier comes out, and I knew nothing about it before Buzzfeed posted it, I’m going like, “Holy fuck, this is good.” Your immediate knee-jerk reaction is, “Oh my God, that Trump!”

TK: Because it’s Trump, it’s not totally unbelievable.

Barry Meier: Yeah. I’m a New Yorker, so I watched this guy in action forever. What we come to learn, not through the dossier, but through the testimony of Michael Cohen, is that Trump was lying about stuff. Like he did have interests in Russia. He was trying to get a hotel built there, and Michael Cohen was negotiating with someone in Russia during the 2016 campaign. Because no one, including Trump, ever thought he was going to win. To me, that provided a far better explanation for Trump’s kowtowing to Putin, it was just mercenary, his pecuniary interest and greed, than some crazed conspiracy. But we didn’t know that. My feeling was, again, and this is through the benefit of hindsight, is that there’s a lot of time and energy wasted chasing the dossier, that could have been better spent examining the real problems of the Trump administration.

TK: Do you think there’ll ever be a full blown reckoning within the business about any of this? There obviously was, to some degree, over the WMD affair.

Barry Meier: I’m not anticipating miracles, that’s for sure. I know some individual reporters who have said to me, “I’m really going to think about this differently, a little bit differently going forward.” The Poynter Institute has not called me up and said, “Let’s have a symposium, and talk about this.” You know this, I know this, anyone who’s worked as a journalist knows this — we’re very thin skinned. We hate being criticized. We hate acknowledging mistakes. I mean I’ve certainly made mistakes in my career. Fortunately, they tended to be more in the realm of typos than carrying false narratives forward, but — I don’t know.

I do hope — I think if there’s one thing that does come out of it, is that there’s less of an open door to these operatives at mainstream media organizations. That next time a firm like Fusion GPS comes in to shop them a story, they go, “Hey, wait a minute. You guys were involved in this thing. See you around.”

Or, “Yeah, well we’ll look at it, but if we do anything with it, we’re going to name you. If you don’t like that, go somewhere else.” When you set the dossier story aside, and I don’t know what your experience is on this, but my dealings with these types of firms is pretty limited. I have to say that the stories that they’re shopping by and large are kind of one day wonders. It’s like a quick hit on somebody that their client wants to muddy up or embarrass, or whatever the hell it is. I guess there’s probably a good reason to say, “Why the fuck do we need to do any of this? Whose interest is being served? Is the reader really being served? Is the viewer really being served?”

TK: In other words, “Why do we even need to deal with these kinds of organizations at all?”

Barry Meier: Yes. Can’t we go out and get our own, do our own reporting?

TK: Do reporters always know when a story is originating from one of these firms?

Barry Meier: That’s a very good question, because they will not come to us directly.

One technique that’s frequently used is to send in a whistleblower, someone who is a former employee, former employer, employee, someone who is disaffected, whatever. That’s been done in the past. But that really has to do with scrutinizing people, and trying to figure out… I mean most whistleblowers are problematic for one reason or another, but most of them have motives that are readily discernible, but that may not always be the case, and they may be delivering material to us that has been hacked or has been gathered in some way that we would want to know about before using it.

I’d like to think that most reporters are diligent. Certainly in my experience, in my years of journalism, was yeah, there were some yahoos, but most reporters were diligent, and honest, and well-meaning.

TK: Also afraid of being burned.

Barry Meier: Well, that’s a good thing, right? Someone having anxiety, well anxiety can be a very good thing, because it prevents you from doing stupid stuff.

Anytime I made a mistake as a reporter, it could be like a typo, it was a horrifying, humiliating, and humbling experience. I have no idea what would have happened, how I would have felt about myself had I been involved in something like this. But I’m afraid that for some people it just bounces off of them, it’s not their fault. They just carry on with business, or editors protect them, or whatever the case may be. But it’s not good, it’s not good.

TK: Is that a generational thing? Because a lot of reporters who came up before, they say the same thing: on the night before you publish something, you have that knot in your chest, because you’re terrified you got something wrong.

Barry Meier: Yeah, you wake up in the middle of the night, you call the copy desk. You’re changing all over here and there because you’re freaking out. Yes. I don’t know. I hate to think it’s a generational thing, I really do. That would worry me, if I thought it was a generational thing. Our profession attracts all kinds of people, and there are people that care. There are people that pretend to care or think they care, and there are people that dodge bullets for a very long time.

You have people like Mike Isikoff, who to his credit says, “I should have been more skeptical. I really do. I really do.” Regardless of what you think of Mike, he’s acknowledging he made a mistake. And he’s in the minority. He’s in a minority. Then you’ve got other people who will say to me, “Thank God I never wrote about the dossier. Thank God we’ve had a pass.”

They’re just saying to themselves, “I avoided that. I wasn’t in the car that crashed.” Then you have the people that were in the car that crashed, and I don’t know what’s going on in their heads. People, and it’s not necessarily unique to our profession, but there are people out there with very hard carapaces, hard shells.

TK: What’s the ultimate lesson in this book for journalists?

Barry Meier: You’ve written about this, and it’s crystal clear that we’re living in an era of hyper partisanship, where media’s concerned. People are just talking to their constituents, and telling them what they believe their constituent audiences want to hear. That’s a very unfortunate situation. It’s also a situation that private operatives thrive in, because they’re usually working for an entity that wants to feed that hyper partisanship. It’s not just, as you know, it’s not just on one side of the political spectrum, it’s on both sides, and maybe working its way towards the middle.

I quoted you in the book, when you’re kind of ripping on this being a repeat of WMDs. I forgot what your exact line is, but the idea is, basically, when are we going to learn? When are we going to learn?

When are we going to demand to see the evidence? That’s the same thing here. Why didn’t we demand to see the evidence? Why didn’t we demand to be introduced to Steele’s source? Why didn’t we demand to know more about him, even if we weren’t being introduced to him? Why did we accept these things on faith, and without scrutinizing them? These are the questions we have to ask.