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U.S. libel case testimony could put sources at risk - UK spy behind Trump dossier

LONDON (Reuters) - Former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a “dossier” of allegations linking U.S. President Donald Trump to Russia, should not be forced to give evidence in a U.S. libel case because it could put his sources at risk and harm UK national security, his lawyer said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO - Cars are parked outside an address which has been linked by local media to former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, in Wokingham, Britain, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Former MI6 agent Steele was the author of a report which alleged Moscow had attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election and potential collusion between Russia and Trump, along with other unverified and salacious claims about the president.

Trump has described the report, which was published by the Buzzfeed website in January last year, as “bogus” and Moscow has repeatedly rejected accusations of interference in the election.

A Russian businessman, Aleksej Gubarev, is suing Buzzfeed for libel in a Florida court over claims in the dossier about him and his companies and as part of his case his lawyers have asked to take a deposition from Steele.

Last November, a British court ruled Steele should undergo lengthy pre-trial questioning but on Monday his lawyers sought to have that order quashed.

Gavin Millar, Steele’s lawyer, told London’s High Court the case was almost unique due to the huge impact the Steele’s dossier had had on U.S. politics.

He said Gubarev’s lawyers were seeking a seven-hour deposition from Steele, which he said amounted to a “mini public inquiry” and an opportunistic “fishing expedition” which could put Steele’s sources at increased risk.

“It’s extremely worrying for someone in Mr Steele’s position,” he said.

In court papers, Steele’s lawyers added: “The Order is likely to require Mr Steele to answer questions in circumstances where his answers would .... require the disclosure of sensitive intelligence information which would endanger UK national security interests and personnel.”

Millar said a lawyer for Britain’s Foreign Office, which supervises Britain’s foreign intelligence agency where Steele worked until 2009, was attending Monday’s hearing in case the government felt it necessary to request any testimony by Steele was limited to protect official secrets.

However, the government lawyer said he was not going to raise any specific concerns at this stage of the hearing.

Gubarev’s lawyer Hannah Brown accused Millar of being “melodramatic” and said they had narrowed the scope of the deposition to focus on Steele’s background and the 13 lines in the dossier which related to her client.

“Far from being a wide-ranging, roving inquiry, in fact three very discreet topics,” she said, adding that the deposition would not seek answers which might expose sources.

If Steele’s legal team fails to have the order set aside, they have said it should be varied to ensure questioning lasts no more than three hours and to prevent any questions which would require the disclosure of any confidential information.

Gubarev’s case is one of a number of lawsuits being brought against Buzzfeed in the wake of the dossier’s publication, and the businessman is also suing Steele himself for libel in Britain in separate action.

A decision on the deposition order in London will be made at a later date.

Editing by Guy Faulconbridge