This article was originally published at Jason Foster’s Substack “Stubborn Things” under the headline “New Book: Private Spies Infected Journalism with Steele Dossier, ‘A Media Clusterf**k of epic proportions.’”
When I first heard that a former New York Times investigative reporter was writing a book about “corporate intelligence firms” like Fusion GPS and Orbis Business Intelligence, I was skeptical. Would this mean serious, in-depth scrutiny of the way Glenn Simpson and Christopher Steele peddled too-good-to-check Trump dossier fantasies to their allies in the media? Unlikely.
After all, Barry Meier began working for The Old Gray Lady when I was still in high school. He has serious skins on the wall as a good old-fashioned investigative journalist, but his paper also allowed itself to become Fusion’s mouthpiece for procedural squabbles with congressional investigators seeking to uncover the truth about the dossier and its claims.
Plus, the scope of the book might mean only a chapter or two on Fusion and Orbis, with a litany of stories about the excesses and abuses of other firms.
I was wrong.
Meier has hammered the third nail in the coffin of the Steele dossier. Nail one was Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s April 2019 Report. Nail two was Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s December 2019 Report.
Nail three is Meier’s book, and it’s a much more entertaining read than the first two.
Out today, “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies” contains a comprehensive, page-turning narrative of the massive media and political dumpster fire that was the Steele dossier. Some sections examine other examples supporting Meier’s thesis that journalists should avoid the temptation to rely on private operatives for scoops. But the bulk of the book focuses on the dossier as Exhibit A, and properly so.
It’s clear from the beginning where Meier is going and that plenty of other journalists spoke to him about Fusion, both on and off the record. From the unflattering physical descriptions of Glenn Simpson and references to his drinking, it quickly becomes obvious that Meier is not a fan (p. 16-17):
The editors who managed him—or who tried to … found him difficult, combative, and quick to see conspiracies where ones didn’t exist. Some editors, upon learning that Simpson had just sent in a story for editing, would find an excuse to leave the newsroom in the hope that the story would get assigned to a colleague before they got back.
Apparently, there was no shortage of former colleagues willing to dish to Meier off the record (p. 22):
Simpson’s friends knew he had a tendency toward paranoia and upon his return to Washington it found a new outlet. He worried that Russian spies or operatives working for oligarchs were bugging his home. Meanwhile, his intoxication with the cloak-and-dagger world of private spying and its intrigue was growing. “He loved the skullduggery and the amoral nature of the business and liked to say, ‘My guy told me this,’” one Journal reporter recalled.
Simpson’s business partner Peter Fritsch gets similar treatment.
Meier describes allegations that Fritsch used a racial epithet in a recorded conversation with a colleague at The Wall Street Journal (p. 62-63):
Fritsch carried himself with the macho swagger of a risk-taking foreign correspondent[,] … had a hair trigger temper and was prone to making inflammatory comments.
Early in his career, a female editor wanted to get rid of him because she found him so abrasive but male colleagues arranged for him to receive a transfer. Later, when Fritsch was a senior editor, a reporter charged that he had used a racial epithet when describing to the reporter how he needed to act subserviently to his superiors if he wanted to get ahead at the paper.
In 2004, that reporter, Shawn Crispin, whose job was then being eliminated, notified lawyers at Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company, that he had a tape recording of Fritsch’s remarks. “Going forward, I suggest that you ask Mr. Fritsch whether or not my representation of our [conversation] is accurate,” he wrote in an email.
More than a decade later, a spokesman for the Journal declined to comment on the episode. Fritsch also didn’t respond to questions about it. But a former Dow Jones newsroom manager who was in Asia at the same time as Fritsch, backed up Shawn Crispin’s account.
He also reports on the kinds of deals Simpson tried to strike when reporters were clamoring for access to him and Steele following the release of the dossier (p. 199):
“Everyone wanted Glenn,” Rhonda Schwartz, the ABC news producer said. “He was like a rock star.”
Schwartz watched as two NBC News correspondents, Andrea Mitchell and Lester Holt, snagged Simpson for dinner. She was so worried that NBC News would get the scoop that she called her reporting partner, Brian Ross, to figure out how they should respond. As it turned out, there wasn’t really a need to do anything. Simpson had apparently set a ground rule for landing an interview with him. A year had passed since Fusion GPS had worked [against Bill Browder] on behalf of the Russian-owned real estate firm, Prevezon Holdings, but Simpson’s animus for Bill Browder apparently remained unrequited. “In order to get Glenn, you first had to do a hit piece on Browder,” said Schwartz, adding that she and Ross weren’t interested in taking up Simpson on that deal.
New details like these will surely titillate those who already blame Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele for igniting a McCarthyite hysteria with their tales of a Manchurian candidate controlled by pee tape blackmail.
However, none of this is what makes the book worthwhile and important.
“Spooked” is a critique of the kind of journalistic malpractice evident in the dossier saga. The fact that someone with Meier’s resume devoted the time and effort to write it is mildly stunning. Many of his peers still refuse to admit any need to examine the record he has chronicled in painstaking detail.
It’s worthwhile and important because it is the first, most comprehensively reliable account of the dossier saga from an author who open-minded folks living in a center-left media bubble might actually read. For the most part, Meier lets the facts do the work, illustrating rather than explaining or opining. That could move persuadable readers, as the Mueller and Horowitz reports did.
It’s a public service to have the rise and fall of the dossier documented so thoroughly in one place by an author who cannot be dismissed. The essentials are all there and then some, advancing the ball with colorful new details. The history of Simpson and Steele working for lawyers hired by Russian oligarchs. The shared connections between some of those lawyers, the Russian-born operative accused of trafficking in hacked emails, and the infamous Trump Tower meeting. The leaking of the dossier to Buzzfeed. The Cohen-in-Prague and Alfa bank “pinging” story debacles. The indications that Russian intelligence might have been aware of and able to influence Steele’s work for Fusion and the Clinton campaign. The millions in funding from billionaire donors for a former Sen. Feinstein staffer to help Simpson try to salvage the dossier. And a chapter on the eventual outing by internet sleuths of Steele’s primary dossier source as a Russian-born operative who had worked at the Brookings Institution.
As he lays out the facts, Meier also laments the lack of journalistic self-reflection amidst the wreckage, with the notable exception of Erik Wemple’s “The media and the Steele dossier,” series in The Washington Post (p. 241):
[M]ost of the journalists and commentators contacted by Wemple blew him off or defended their reporting. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker told him that Steele had become a convenient “political piñata” for Trump supporters, adding that her article had “carefully quoted naysayers.”
Meier generally keeps his biases from intruding, but they are there. Many readers will find hard to swallow the minimizing of political considerations in the journalistic failures he criticizes (p. 242):
…[P]olitics played only a small part. Media organizations didn’t conduct internal postmortems or public reconstructions about how they handled the dossier story for another reason—it would have required them to disclose the toxic relationship that had developed between journalists and private spies.
Both reasons were likely significant, and Meier offers no evidence for his belief that politics was the smaller factor. But at least he acknowledged the elephant in the room—or the donkey in the newsroom—before minimizing it.
Similarly, his cursory and dismissive description of congressional oversight efforts that helped expose much of the very information he expands upon is particularly hard for me to swallow.
Still, these flaws are outweighed by the larger lessons of the book that should resonate with a broader audience. And those just looking to dunk on the purveyors of the dossier and the media figures who fell for it will find plenty of material too.
Meier’s bottom line is this (p. 192):
The end result was a media clusterf**k of epic proportions, one that was the consequence of the long-metastasizing relationship between private spies and journalists.
Regardless of your political perspective or sympathies for Meier’s conclusion about the root cause of the problem he outlines, his book is well worth a read.