White House

House Memo Details Use of Steele Dossier to Spy on Trump Campaign Adviser

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
The memo appears to confirm suspicions that a FISA court warrant targeted Carter Page based on information in the dossier funded by Hillary Clinton's campaign.

What we have long suspected (see, e.g., here and here) has now been confirmed: The Obama Justice Department and the FBI used the unverified Steele dossier to convince a federal court to issue a warrant authorizing surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser. Confirmation came in the much-anticipated memorandum released today by the Republican-controlled House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The memo states that the Obama administration concealed from the court that the dossier was commissioned and paid for by the political campaign of Donald Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Nor was the court informed that the dossier’s author, former British spy Christopher Steele, told a senior Justice Department official that he was “desperate” to prevent Trump from being elected president.

Moreover, despite presenting dossier information as probable cause on four separate occasions — for the initial FISA warrant in October 2016, and three times in the ensuing months — the FBI failed to verify the dossier’s explosive allegations and failed to inform the court that its efforts to corroborate the allegations had been unavailing. Indeed, the memo relates that the government once presented a news story to the court as corroboration for Steele’s claims, apparently unaware that Steele himself was the source for the news story.

The dossier was a compilation of Steele’s reports, based on anonymous Russian sources. His informants provided information based on accounts that were multiple levels of hearsay removed from the events they purported to describe.

The FISA court warrant targeted Carter Page, who had volunteered to serve as a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser. The memo relates that the warrant was originally issued on October 21, 2016, and re-authorized three times thereafter. Under FISA, warrants targeting American citizens lapse after 90 days. If you’re keeping score, that means a warrant based on claims that Trump was corruptly aligned with the Kremlin was renewed twice after Donald Trump became president.

According to the committee testimony of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, the information in the dossier was necessary to the probable-cause showing required to justify issuance of a FISA warrant. That is, the warrant would not have been issued without the dossier information.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) permits the FISA court to issue a surveillance warrant to monitor the communications of a target, including his stored emails and texts, if the Justice Department and FBI establish probable cause that a person is acting as an agent of a foreign power. In this instance, Page was alleged to be an agent of Russia. Because Page is an American citizen, FISA also required the government to show probable cause that Page’s purported clandestine activities on behalf of the Kremlin were in violation of federal criminal law.

The Steele dossier’s description of a Trump-Russia conspiracy with Page at its core alleges Page’s potential involvement in serious crimes: hacking, bribery, fraud, and racketeering. As I have previously explained (see the last section of this column), if the dossier was not used to claim that Page was involved in felony misconduct, it is difficult to fathom where such an allegation could have come from.

Obviously, the obscure Page was not the main target of the investigation. What animated the government was the possibility of Russian collusion with the Donald Trump presidential campaign. It is also what animated Steele in crafting the dossier. Yet, the Intelligence Committee’s memo notes former FBI director James Comey’s acknowledgement in June 2017 Senate testimony that these dossier allegations were “salacious and unverified.”

It appears that they always were. The FBI’s assistant director Bill Priestap told the committee that efforts to corroborate Steele were in their “infancy” when the first warrant was sought. Very shortly thereafter, following a Mother Jones interview of Steele published on October 31, 2016 (i.e., ten days after the initial warrant was issued), Steele was suspended and then terminated as an informant for violating his agreement not to disclose his status as an FBI informant. The memo says that after Steele’s termination, the bureau assessed the corroboration of his claims to be “minimal.”

Yet, high-ranking FBI and Justice Department officials continued to approve warrant applications to the FISA court based significantly on Steele’s claims. The memo states that, for the FBI, director James Comey approved the first three, and deputy director Andrew McCabe the last one; for the Justice Department, the warrant applications were approved by Deputy Attorneys General Sally Yates (of the Obama administration, presumably two times), Dana Boente (as “acting” DAG during the Trump administration), and Rod Rosenstein (President Trump’s appointed DAG).

On one occasion, according to the memo, the Justice Department and FBI attempted to address the lack of verification of the dossier’s claims by what turned out to be circular reliance on a media report. The news story, published on September 23, 2016, by Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, was based on information from Steele. That is, the Justice Department represented to the court that the information it alleged in the FISA warrant application was reliable because it was independently corroborated by sources in Mr. Isikoff’s story. Unbeknownst to the FBI, Steele was Isikoff’s source.

Steele was retained for the Democrat-funded anti-Trump project by the research firm Fusion GPS. At Fusion, he collaborated with Nellie Ohr, the wife of then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr — a senior Justice Department official who worked closely with the deputy attorneys general who approved the FISA warrants. Steele met with Ohr both before and after he was terminated as an FBI source. In September 2016 (i.e., before the first warrant application), the memo recounts that Steele told Ohr he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”

After formally terminating Steele, the FBI periodically interviewed Associate Deputy Attorney General Ohr, who reported on his meetings with Steele. In effect, this enabled the bureau indirectly to maintain Steele as an information source. Further, the memo elaborates that Ohr eventually transmitted to the FBI “all of his wife’s opposition research, paid for by the DNC and the Clinton campaign via Fusion GPS.”

The FISA court was not informed that Steele was paid $160,000 by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, through Fusion GPS and a law firm. Nor was mention made of his stated determination to prevent a Trump presidency.

While the FBI formally cut Steele off after the October 31 Mother Jones interview, the memo points out that he should have been terminated for an earlier round of media interviews in September 2016, including the one that resulted in Michael Isikoff’s Yahoo story. This evidently did not happen because Steele lied to the FBI about his contacts with journalists.

Last month, senior Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham, made a criminal referral of Steele to the Justice Department and FBI. They requested that he be investigated with an eye toward a felony false-statements prosecution for lying to the FBI about his communications with the media.

Finally, the memo notes that one FISA application (presumably the first one) mentions information about Page’s fellow Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos. As we’ve previously recounted, during a night of drinking in London in May 2016, Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat he had learned from sources with claimed Kremlin contacts that the Russians purported to have thousands of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton. After hacked DNC emails began to be published in July, Australian intelligence notified their American counterparts about Papadopoulos’s remarks in London.

The House memo states that this “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Peter Strzok.” This has prompted a celebratory assertion by the New York Times that this “confirms” that actions taken by Papadopoulos “were a factor in the opening of the [Trump-Russia] investigation” — a storyline the Times started pushing after it became known that the dossier that drove the Trump-Russia narrative was partisan opposition research.

But there’s a difference between being a “factor” and an important factor. The formal opening of an investigation is just a ministerial step. There is no indication in the memo that the FBI and Justice Department took energetic investigative measures, such as seeking FISA warrants to monitor Papadopoulos. Indeed, the statement of the offense submitted to the court when Papadopoulos pled guilty in the Mueller investigation (to a single count of lying to the FBI) indicates that the FBI did not even interview Papadopoulos until January 27, 2017 — a week after Trump was sworn in as president and seven months after Strzok opened the investigation.

By contrast, as the Times reported on April 19, 2017, Carter Page’s trip to Moscow in July 2016 had been “a catalyst for the F.B.I. investigation into connections between Russia and President Trump’s campaign.” That trip was the focus of the Steele dossier reporting. It has now been confirmed that the dossier was the foundation for the FBI’s surveillance of Page — the linchpin of the Trump-Russia investigation — that began four months before Papadopoulos was interviewed and continued well after that point.

A final point should be made about continuing attempts to shape our views of the memo and what it portends. It is fatuous to claim, as critics of Committee chairman Devin Nunes and the memo do, that it makes war on our investigative agencies while attempting to discredit the Mueller investigation.

When Democrats have run the Congress, they have not hesitated to decry the FBI’s use of Patriot Act and surveillance power.

When Democrats have run the Congress, they have not hesitated to decry the FBI’s use of Patriot Act and surveillance power. They then refer to it — quite correctly — as their constitutional obligation to conduct oversight and ensure that these agencies created by Congress carry out their taxpayer-funded missions appropriately. The point is to ferret out missteps, remedy them, and hold officials accountable; it is not to undermine the FBI, which is regarded as the nation’s premier law-enforcement agency for good reason.

As for Special Counsel Mueller, his principal mission from Day One has been to conduct a counterintelligence investigation aimed at learning exactly what Russia did to meddle in our election so that we can respond and blunt future threats. That mission is not in any way discredited by the committee’s memo. To the extent the memo casts doubt on the Trump-Russia “collusion” narrative that the Steele dossier did so much to fabricate, it has long been a pipe-dream that any criminal prosecution would be generated by that story-line. Prosecution, in any event, is not Mueller’s main occupation, even if it remains a preoccupation for others.

On the other side of the aisle, the committee has not been well-served by comparisons of the narrow FISA abuse detailed in the memo to Watergate — the greatest governmental crisis in modern American history. The memo outlines serious derelictions. Yet we do not yet know whether they are more widespread than the case of Page’s surveillance; nor do we know what other information was presented to the FISA court over the months of surveillance and, critically, whether valuable intelligence about Russian operations against the United States was derived.

The memo is a valuable first step. It underscores the continuing need to assess how deeply the FBI and Justice Department were enmeshed in the politics of the 2016 election. But much more disclosure is necessary before we can render a conclusive judgment of how deep the problems run.


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