Politics & Policy

Was the Steele Dossier Used to Obtain a FISA Warrant Against Trump’s Campaign?

Then-FBI director James Comey on Capitol Hill in March 2016. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
We need to know the answer.

President Trump ought to direct his Justice Department and FBI to provide the House Intelligence Committee with the FISA warrant application — any FISA warrant application — in which they relied on information from the Steele dossier in seeking court permission to spy on the Trump campaign. It may well be that they did not rely on the dossier. It is ridiculous, though, that we are still in the dark about this.

I have long experience with how scrupulously the FBI and Justice Department work in the often controversial foreign-intelligence realm. They care deeply about their honorable reputation with the FISA court, just as the judges of that secret tribunal care deeply about not being perceived as a “rubber-stamp” for the government. I have thus given our agencies the benefit of the doubt here.

While urging that we have disclosure (with all due care to protect intelligence methods and sources), I have presumed that the FBI and DOJ would never fraudulently present the FISA court with fanciful claims attributed to anonymous Russian sources as if they were a refined product of U.S. intelligence collection and analysis. This, after all, is a “dossier” that former FBI director James Comey dismissed as “salacious and unverified” in Senate testimony just six months ago.

When a court is asked for a warrant, the government must provide the judge with a basis to believe the information proffered is credible — by vouching that the source has been reliable in the past, by corroborating the information offered, or both. If Comey adjudged Steele’s information unverified in June 2017, it had to have been unverified ten months earlier. That’s when the FBI and Justice Department obtained a FISA warrant for Carter Page, who had been loosely described as a Trump campaign adviser.

Consequently, I have assumed that the following happened. The FBI already had information that Page was something of an apologist for the Putin regime — although the record, we shall see, is more complex than that. Thus, the FBI and DOJ may have combined that information with some claims mined out of the dossier; but they would not have included Steele’s claims without corroborating them independently. This combination of information, doubtless added to by intelligence not known to us, was crafted into the application presented to the FISA court. This would be the normal, appropriate process.

Exactly when during the summer of 2016 the surveillance of Page began is unclear. Importantly, however, an unidentified government official told the New York Times that the FBI and DOJ waited until Page was no longer part of the Trump campaign before seeking the warrant — investigators being leery of crossing the line of direct spying on a political campaign member. The Trump team distanced itself from Page in early August, so it was presumably around this time when monitoring began.

To summarize, it is entirely possible that a surveillance warrant for Page was obtained based on no information from Steele, or at least no information the FBI had failed to corroborate independently.

Alas, an alternative theory has gathered momentum due to the drip, drip, drip of disturbing new disclosures, coupled with the fact that the Obama administration was in the tank for Trump’s opponent.

The Clinton campaign generated the Steele dossier through lawyers who retained Fusion GPS. Fusion, in turn, hired Steele, a former British intelligence agent who had FBI contacts from prior collaborative investigations. The dossier was steered into the FBI’s hands as it began to be compiled in the summer of 2016. A Fusion Russia expert, Nellie Ohr, worked with Steele on Fusion’s anti-Trump research. She is the wife of Bruce Ohr, then the deputy associate attorney general — the top subordinate of Sally Yates, then Obama’s deputy attorney general (later acting AG). Ohr was a direct pipeline to Yates.

Burce Ohr met personally with Steele. And after Trump was elected, according to Fusion founder Glenn Simpson, he requested and got a meeting with Simpson to, as Simpson told the House Intelligence Committee, “discuss our findings regarding Russia and the election.” This, of course, was the precise time Democrats began peddling the public narrative of Trump-Russia collusion. It is the time frame during which Ohr’s boss, Yates, was pushing an absurd Logan Act investigation of Trump transition official Michael Flynn (then slotted to become Trump’s national-security adviser) over Flynn’s meetings with the Russian ambassador. Yates was ultimately fired by Trump for insubordinately refusing to enforce his “travel ban”; Ohr has been demoted for failing to disclose his meetings with Steele and Simpson.

Based on the publication this week of text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, the FBI lawyer with whom he was having an extramarital affair, we have learned of a meeting convened in the office of FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe (then and now the FBI’s No. 2 official) in mid-August 2016 — i.e., right around the time the Page FISA warrant was obtained. At the meeting, top national-security personnel discussed the prospect that Donald Trump could be elected president, which they regarded as frightening but highly unlikely. In the text, Strzok told Page, “I’m afraid we can’t take that risk” (of a Trump presidency).

Strzok suggested that the FBI needed “an insurance policy” against a Trump presidency despite its seeming improbability.

The FBI and Justice Department have stonewalled the House Intelligence Committee’s attempts to probe investigators’ political bias against Trump and to learn whether the Steele dossier — again, a Clinton-campaign product — was used to obtain the FISA warrant. Thus, there is reason to be suspicious that the Steele dossier was used for this purpose. After all, we know that Steele’s work had Ohr’s support — in effect, an endorsement from Obama Justice Department leadership. There are, furthermore, several intriguing things about the timing of the FISA warrant — not least, the fact that it was sought shortly after the bureau started receiving Steele’s reports.

Page was in Moscow in July 2016. Steele knew about the trip from his unidentified Russian sources. Steele reported in July (and reiterated in October) that Page met with highly placed Putin ally Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft, the state-controlled oil giant. Sechin and Rosneft were (and are) under U.S. economic sanctions imposed because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. According to Steele, Sechin proposed that if Trump were elected president and lifted the sanctions, Russia would pay Page and Trump the brokerage of the sale of a 19 percent privatized stake in Rosneft. Page was described as noncommittal, but as implying that it was indeed Trump’s intention to lift the sanctions.

(The oil giant is valued at nearly $60 billion. It finally sold a 19.5 percent stake late last year to Qatar and the commodities trader Glencore for $11.3 billion, so the brokerage would have come to many millions of dollars.)

The Steele dossier is the version of the ‘collusion’ narrative that Trump detractors want to believe.

Steele further claimed that Page met with Ivan Diveykin, a Kremlin official. Diveykin is said to have informed Page that Russia had a kompromat file on Mrs. Clinton that it might be willing to share with the Trump campaign. He also suggested that the Kremlin had such a file on Trump, too, which Trump should bear in mind in his dealings with Russia.

Steele placed these allegations in the framework of what he described as a conspiracy of cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign, overseen on the latter’s end by Paul Manafort (then the campaign chairman). Page was said to be an intermediary between Manafort and Kremlin contacts. Steele’s reports suggest that coordination with Russia on the theft of DNC emails and their subsequent transmission to WikiLeaks was part of this scheme.

The Steele dossier, in other words, is the version of the “collusion” narrative that Trump detractors want to believe.

So, when Steele brought this information to the FBI, was he pushing on an open door? Was this then-fresh information the rationale for the decision to seek the warrant? Were its allegations about Page incorporated in the warrant application?

These questions are pressing because it appears that Steele’s information about Page is not merely unverified but almost certainly false.

Page is an enigma. He is an Annapolis grad turned investor and think-tanker. (See this useful Washington Post profile.) The FBI was not without reasons to be suspicious of him. He had been on the bureau’s radar screen since 2013 when he happened into a counterintelligence investigation. This, however, was not so much because of anything Page did, but because a Russian spy was trying to recruit him and various other business people as sources. One could see why the Putin regime would approach Page: To the limited extent he had notoriety, it was as a Russia apologist. He was also an investor in Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled (though ostensibly “private”) energy conglomerate. Yet, this former naval intelligence officer seems, in his peculiar way, to be a well-meaning if misguided American: He cooperated with the FBI’s investigation against Russian intelligence. His beliefs that close American-Russian relations are essential and that appeasement is the path to having them are wrong but seem to be held in good faith.

Whatever one thinks of him, it appears that Page hardly knew Trump at all. His path to the campaign was through a top New York Republican. Much of the GOP shunned the Trump campaign, so Page is like many others who were instantly designated “advisers” if they were willing to help — these were will-o’-the-wisp arrangements.

Page is insistent that he does not even know Manafort, and that he did not meet with either of the two Putin cronies during his 2016 trip — he knows who Sechin is, but so does anyone who does business in the Russian energy sector; he says he had never heard of Diveykin until Steele’s dossier became public early this year. Page concedes meeting up with a Rosneft executive during his Russia trip, but the investor says this exec was his longtime friend Andrey Baranov, who runs Rosneft’s investor relations. Page acknowledges that Baranov may have mentioned the sanctions and the then-pending sale of Rosneft in passing, but these were common topics among energy business people at the time. Page is adamant that there was never any discussion of his having anything to do with the Rosneft deal — in either his private capacity or his elusive Trump-campaign role.

The Kremlin would not have seen Page as a suitable conduit to pitch Trump on a traitorous quid pro quo arrangement.

Is Page lying about some or all of this? Maybe . . . but I doubt it. One thing seems clear: The Kremlin would not have seen Page as a suitable conduit to pitch Trump on a traitorous quid pro quo arrangement. The Russians would have known Page had no meaningful relationship with Trump. Plainly, there were regime-connected people who had significantly better ties to the candidate if Russia wanted to make a corrupt offer (see, e.g., here and here). Plus, Russian intelligence believed Page was an “idiot,” as a Russian agent referred to him in a secretly recorded call during the 2013 case. They would not have sought his help for something so sensitive.

Did the FBI and Justice Department use Steele’s information to get the FISA warrant? One certainly hopes not, for two salient reasons.

First, the dossier, particularly as it relates to Page, is incredibly far-fetched. I am assuming that, at the time it began receiving the dossier reports, the FBI did not know that Steele was working for the Clinton campaign — indeed, we do not yet know whether Steele himself knew who, ultimately, was paying for his work. If the bureau were aware of the Clinton campaign’s role, using the dossier would be indefensible. We should assume for now, though, that if investigators were scrupulous enough to resist seeking a warrant for Page while he was officially connected to the Trump campaign, they would doubly have avoided using one campaign’s information as a basis for spying on its opposition.

Nevertheless, the explosive information was unverified. There were abundant reasons to doubt its veracity when it came to Page. And the FBI could easily have taken measures less drastic than seeking court-ordered surveillance; it could, for example, have interviewed Page, who had cooperated with the FBI in the past.

The second reason to hope the dossier was not used is more alarming. If the FBI and Justice Department relied on it, this would very likely mean that they fell victim to an influence operation, based on false information, by Russian intelligence services. Steele’s sources are unidentified Russians, at least some of whom knew Steele to be a spy for hire. It is possible, if not likely, that these Russians fed Steele false information in order to see if Western intelligence services would bite and, if the Kremlin got lucky, to sow discord and chaos into the American political system.

I hope they did not succeed, but we need to find out. One more disturbing fact: Because Page is a U.S. citizen, the Justice Department and FBI would have had to show the FISA court not only that he was acting as a foreign agent for Russia but that his activities involved or may have involved violations of federal criminal statutes. (See Section 1801(b)(2) of Title 50, U.S. Code.) I don’t know of any basis for attributing criminal activity to Page other than the Steele dossier — but, of course, I don’t know everything the FBI knows.

Was the August 2016 decision to spy on a Trump associate based on a Clinton campaign screed’s claim of a corrupt Trump-Russia deal? Did FBI and Justice Department officials lose their professional objectivity because Steele’s information fit their anti-Trump bias? Was the Steele dossier, in effect, the “insurance policy” Agent Strzok had in mind? President Trump can provide the answers to these questions: He just needs to order the FBI and Justice Department, led by his appointees, to cooperate with Congress’s investigations.


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