United Kingdom

High Court judge fears libel trial of ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele was live-streamed to Russia

Senior judges have raised concern after part of a High Court libel trial featuring a former British spy was wrongly live-streamed to people in the United States, Cyprus and Russia. 

Christopher Steele, who set up an intelligence consultancy after leaving MI6, wrote a collection of documents in 2016 about alleged links between Donald Trump and the Kremlin.

Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev sued him after BuzzFeed published the 'Steele Dossier' in January 2017, claiming parts of the file made 'seriously defamatory allegations'.

Mr Steele disputed his claims.

Christopher Steele, pictured left, who set up an intelligence consultancy after leaving MI6, wrote a collection of documents in 2016 about alleged links between Donald Trump and the Kremlin. Russian businessman Aleksej Gubarev, pictured right, sued him after BuzzFeed published the 'Steele Dossier' in January 2017, claiming parts of the file made 'seriously defamatory allegations'

A judge oversaw the trial in a court room at the Royal Courts of Justice last month. 

Mr Justice Warby, who has yet to deliver a ruling, made an order saying journalists and members of the public could not physically attend – because of the coronavirus crisis – but could watch proceedings screened to a nearby room via Zoom.

However, he subsequently discovered that a solicitor, at a law firm representing Mr Gubarev, had sent the Zoom link to seven people, who watched part of the trial from various locations around the world, without his permission.

The judge today asked two other judges to examine issues relating to the 'professional conduct' of McDermott Will and Emery, the law firm representing Mr Gubarev, who lives in Cyprus.

Dame Victoria Sharp and Mrs Justice Andrews, who heard evidence at a High Court hearing in London last week, have raised a number of concerns and said an order made by Mr Justice Warby had been disobeyed.

Mr Justice Warby, pictured, discovered that a solicitor, at a law firm representing Mr Gubarev, had sent a Zoom link live-streaming the trial to seven people, who watched from various locations around the world, without his permission

The two judges said, in a ruling published today, that McDermott Will and Emery, which has offices in London and abroad, had referred the 'matter' to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

They said the Zoom link had been sent to seven people connected to Mr Gubarev, including his wife and daughter in Cyprus, the mother of one of his business associates – who gave evidence at the trial – in Russia, and lawyers he used in the United States.

Judges said for three days proceedings had been live-streamed outside the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales without Mr Justice Warby's permission.

'This state of affairs is deeply worrying,' said the two judges. 'As McDermott Will and Emery has already referred this matter to the SRA, it is unnecessary for us to do so.

'We will nonetheless direct that a copy of this judgment is sent to the SRA so that this court's views of the seriousness of the breaches in this case can be made known to it.'

Judges said the lawyer who had passed on the Zoom link had told of a 'memory fade', had accepted responsibility and made a 'full and unreserved apology'.

They accepted that it was not a case of 'deliberate defiance' of a court order.

Christopher Steele: The British ex-spy whose Russia dossier sent shockwaves through the Trump White House

Christopher Steele, 55, embarked on a well-trodden path when he was recruited from Cambridge straight into MI6.

After a stint in London, he was stationed in Moscow just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He returned to London and in 2006 was made head of MI6's Russia desk, where he led the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian operative Alexander Litvinenko.

But he only became world-renowned after becoming a private intelligence consultant and writing the sensational Trump-Russia dossier in 2016.

His evidence was rubbished by Trump, but formed part of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In an interview at Oxford University, Mr Steele said he had been questioned for 'two whole days' but was disappointed with Mueller's final report.

'I was surprised that very little of what I had discussed with them appeared in the final report.

He criticized the report for being 'too narrow' and failing to follow up on crucial evidence. 

'There were many things about the report that were good… but other (aspects) that were not so good,' he said. 

Mr Steele said the fact that 'a number of witnesses—including for instance, Donald Trump Jr.' had avoided being interviewed 'wasn't great.' 

Dismissing longstanding allegations of political bias, he described himself as simply 'an opponent of President Putin.'

He said that Trump is naturally hostile toward the intelligence community. 

'Trump himself doesn't like intelligence because its ground truth is inconvenient for him,' he said.   

The 'dirty dossier' made headlines in 2017 for its extraordinary allegations, including a claim that Donald Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on the bed of the Presidential Suite at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013, where he knew Barack and Michelle Obama had previously stayed.

Other accusations made have been widely rubbished, with one particular memorandum making the 'grave' allegation that Mr Gubarev was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee's computer system, his lawyers told the High Court last month.

They argued Mr Steele's implication that the Russian venture capitalist, who runs IT infrastructure solutions firm Webzilla, engaged in such cyber crime could have incurred serious financial losses.

Mr Steele's legal team believes the libel claim should be thrown out as their client was not responsible for Buzzfeed publishing the dossier.  

Andrew Caldecott QC, who leads Mr Gubarev's legal team, told the court last month: 'One memorandum within the Steele Dossier named the claimants, making grave allegations as to knowing involvement in the hacking of the computer systems of the United States Democratic National Committee in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

'Needless to say, once published, the Steele Dossier, or the gist of its allegations, went viral.' 

Mr Caldecott said there was a 'practical ceiling' of about £325,000 on defamation damages awards and while he would not push for compensation 'at the 'very top of the bracket', he would be seeking 'very substantial damages'. 

Mr Caldecott said the accusation was an 'allegation of guilt' by the former British intelligence official.

He added: 'To the ordinary reader, he would seem to be a "man in the know" with proven sources. The format is business-like.'

The lawyer said the 'wider and frankly sensational' context of the allegations was also 'highly material' and added: 'The suggestion that Mr Gubarev and his companies were knowingly using their servers for cyber-crime - created, we submit, an obviously likelihood of serious financial loss.'   

He stressed there was 'no suggestion' that the allegations against Mr Gubarev and Webzilla were true.

He highlighted that BuzzFeed had apologised and 'redacted' the names of Mr Gubarev and Webzilla from their website. 

Mr Steele's lawyer Gavin Millar QC said the memorandum was produced for the 'sole purpose' of ensuring that responsible authorities in the US and UK were aware of 'confidential and sensitive intelligence' which had 'significant' national security implications.  

Mr Caldecott said the dossier had been commissioned by a company acting for a law firm. 

But he said the 'ultimate client' had been the 'Democratic National Committee and/or Hillary Clinton's presidential election campaign'.

The President rubbished the allegations as 'fake news' when they were controversially published by Buzzfeed website in 2017.

The veracity of the report, which was funded by the Democratic Party has been treated with scepticism, not least by special counsel Robert Mueller who all but dismissed Mr Steele's findings.

Mueller's comprehensive probe into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign threw out the Mr Steele's claims of prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room and poured cold water on many of his other accusations.

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