Lawyers for the British author of an unverified intelligence dossier at the center of the Trump-Russia controversy are fighting an effort to force him into a deposition in connection with a libel suit stemming from BuzzFeed’s publication of the salacious document.
On Thursday afternoon, attorneys for former British MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele asked a federal judge in Miami not to grant the request, but Steele’s lawyers’ motion was filed a couple of hours after U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro issued a formal request for Steele’s testimony.
Ungaro’s request was signed by the judge and sealed by the court clerk, but it was unclear if it was formally delivered to the British court to which it was addressed or whether it could be called back and canceled.
The demand for Steele’s testimony was issued at the request of lawyers for Aleksej Gubarev, a Russian internet entrepreneur who was mentioned in the dossier and contends he was libeled by its claims about his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Earlier this year, Gubarev sued BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, in a Florida court over BuzzFeed’s publication of the document. Gubarev also sued Steele in a British court.
In the motion filed Thursday, Steele’s lawyers argue that the effort to force him to give a deposition in England amounts to an "end-run" around the British legal process.
"The deposition sought is impermissible and unlawful on multiple grounds, not the least of which is that the self-same Plaintiffs have a direct defamation action pending against Mr. Steele in the United Kingdom in which the requested deposition is strictly prohibited," Steele attorney Christina Eikhoff wrote. "Plaintiffs thus are seeking to employ this Court in an end-run around their limitations in their parallel U.K. action."
Steele’s lawyers, from Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird, asked Ungaro for a two-week delay in order to present more detailed arguments about why Steele’s deposition should not be taken.
Eikhoff and an attorney for Gubarev did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A BuzzFeed spokesman declined to comment.
Even if Steele did appear at a deposition, it’s far from clear any useful testimony would be forthcoming. Ungaro’s request notes that witnesses in U.S. legal proceedings have Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Given special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing criminal investigation, Steele might well assert his right to remain silent. But his doing so could have an impact in the civil lawsuits.
U.S. House and Senate investigators are also eager to talk to Steele. POLITICO reported last week that earlier this summer two House Intelligence Committee staffers traveled to London in an effort to make contact with the spy-turned-private investigator, but were apparently unsuccessful. Senate investigators had been trying to broker a deal to get Steele’s testimony and were reportedly angered by the House foray.