A former MI6 officer who wrote a report on Donald Trump’s alleged links to Russia is not legally responsible for its publication, the High Court has ruled.
Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev sued Christopher Steele for libel over the publication of a dossier which included claims that he was involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.
He took legal action against Mr Steele and Orbis Business Intelligence, a corporate intelligence company co-founded by Mr Steele, shortly after the so-called “Steele dossier” was published by BuzzFeed in January 2017.
The dossier, which was commissioned on behalf of “a person or body in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party”, included claims that the US president had been “compromised” by the Russian security service the FSB.
It also alleged that Mr Trump had taken part in “perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB” and that Russian president Vladimir Putin “supported and directed” an operation to “cultivate” Mr Trump as a presidential candidate for “at least five years”. The US president has denied the claims.
A separate memo, produced in December 2016, alleged Mr Gubarev’s company Webzilla “had been using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership”.
It also said that Mr Gubarev had been “recruited under duress by the FSB” to take part in the operation.
Mr Gubarev claimed Mr Steele and Orbis were legally responsible for BuzzFeed publishing the dossier. But, in a judgment delivered remotely on Friday, Mr Justice Warby dismissed the claim.
The judge said that the references to Mr Gubarev were “defamatory” and that the dossier’s publication had “caused serious harm to his reputation”.
However, Mr Justice Warby added: “He would have been entitled to substantial damages if he had proved that the defendants are responsible in law for the publication complained of.
“But he has failed to prove that. So, Mr Gubarev’s claim must be dismissed.”
The judge said Webzilla’s claim against Mr Steele and Orbis “must also be dismissed for the same reason”.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Warby explained that Orbis was commissioned by Fusion GPS, an American strategic intelligence firm, ultimately on behalf of someone at the top of the US Democratic Party.
Shortly after Mr Trump was elected, Mr Steele spoke with the former British ambassador to Russia Sir Andrew Wood, who suggested he approach Senator John McCain, then chair of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee, about his dossier.
Mr Steele then met with David Kramer, a former US State Department official, and showed him the dossier on the agreement that it was “to be used only by Senator McCain in ways he considered necessary to protect US security”.
The existence of the Steele dossier was reported by CNN in January 2017, four days after then FBI director James Comey briefed Mr Trump on its contents.
Less than an hour an a half after CNN’s report, BuzzFeed published an article on the Steele dossier and the dossier in full.
Mr Justice Warby said that both Mr Gubarev and Mr Steele agreed that the publication of the dossier was “one of the most irresponsible and reckless actions in the history of modern journalism”.
The court heard that Mr Steele was not aware that Mr Kramer had allowed Ken Bensinger, a BuzzFeed journalist, to read copies of the dossier.
It also heard that Mr Kramer did not realise Mr Bensinger had taken photos of it until the article was published.
Mr Gubarev’s lawyers relied on text messages sent between Mr Steele and Sir Andrew in December 2016 in which Mr Steele said Senator McCain “appears to have bottled it”, describing it as “quite depressing”.
Sir Andrew replied: “Yes, but not surprising. I thought the stratagem unlikely to succeed.
“The immortal words of a former secretary general of the former League of Communists of Yugoslavia have always comforted me: ‘In the end the Russians always f*** it up.’”
In his ruling, Mr Justice Warby said: “I do not find this persuasive as a basis for an inference that the defendants intended, or authorised, media publication of the allegations complained of.”
The judge added that he accepted Mr Steele’s evidence that he “hoped information would be passed to the CIA, the National Security Agency, and to colleagues of Senator McCain on the National Security Committee”.
The “strategem”, Mr Justice Warby said, was “to ensure that senior Republicans knew of its existence”, but not for the dossier to be published in the media.
Mr Gubarev also took legal action against BuzzFeed and its editor Benjamin Smith in Florida, at around the same time as he filed his claim against Mr Steele and Orbis in London.
His US claim against BuzzFeed was dismissed in December 2018 but, according to the High Court’s judgment, in March the US Court of Appeals ordered Mr Gubarev’s case against the website to be reheard, which is yet to take place.
In a statement on Twitter after the ruling, Orbis welcomed the judgment and said: “Orbis Business Intelligence and Christopher Steele remain proud of the work we did in uncovering Russian interference in the 2016 US election, the key findings of which have been confirmed by subsequent US government and Congressional investigations and inquiries.”