Politics & Policy

Did the FBI Have a Spy in the Trump Campaign?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., October 31, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The Steele-dossier author told Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson about a ‘human source.’

Something tells me Glenn Simpson did not make a mistake. Something tells me the co-founder of Fusion GPS was dead-on accurate when he testified that Christopher Steele told him the FBI had a “human source” — i.e., a spy — inside the Trump campaign as the 2016 presidential race headed into its stretch run.

When he realized how explosive this revelation was, Simpson walked it back: He had, perhaps, “mischaracterized” what he’d been told by Steele, the former British spy and principal author of the anti-Trump dossier he and Simpson compiled for the Clinton campaign.

Simpson gave his testimony about the FBI’s human source at a closed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on August 22, 2017. He did not try to retract it until the uproar that followed the publication of his testimony on January 9, 2018. The latter date is significant for reasons we’ll come to.

A Spy and a Stonewall
Simpson’s testimony on this point is worth revisiting because of a pitched battle between the House Intelligence Committee and the Justice Department. Essential reporting on the controversy has been done by the Wall Street Journal’s Kim Strassel (see here and here). On Thursday, she related that, yet again, Congress had faced down a DOJ/FBI attempt to stonewall the committee’s probe of investigative irregularities during the 2016 election season — particularly, abuse of government surveillance powers, which the Obama-led agencies used to monitor the Trump campaign.

Unable to get voluntary cooperation, committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) issued a subpoena demanding that the Justice Department disclose information about a top-secret intelligence source who is said to have assisted the Russia investigation. That investigation is now being run by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But more interesting is how it got started.

On that question, officials have been suspiciously fuzzy in their explanations, and hilariously inconsistent in their leaks: initially settling on an origination story that hinged on the Steele dossier and a trip to Moscow by the obscure Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page; later pivoting to a tale of boozy blathering by an even more obscure Trump-campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, when the first story proved embarrassing — the dossier allegations having been unverified when the Justice Department included them in warrant applications to the FISA court.

The Justice Department’s inability, or at least unwillingness, to reveal exactly how, when, and why the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation has fueled suspicions that a spy who worked for both the FBI and the CIA was deployed against the Trump campaign, probably in Britain — where Papadopoulos had met with suspected agents of the Kremlin, and where Steele compiled the dossier via reports from his unidentified sources.

From painstaking research, Nunes and committee staff believe they have identified such a spy. When they demanded information about this person — whose name remains unknown to the public — the Justice Department’s response was not “No, you’re wrong, there was no spying.” It was first to bloviate that the department would not be “extorted” (Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s unusual understanding of what is more commonly known as congressional oversight) and then to claim that providing the information sought by the committee would risk “potential loss of human lives, damage to relationships with valued international partners, compromise of ongoing criminal investigations, and interference with intelligence activities.”

By now, Nunes has learned that if he is catching flak, he is over the target.

Simpson’s Senate Testimony about the FBI’s ‘Human Source’
This brings us back to Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS, which was retained by the Clinton campaign (through its lawyers at Perkins Coie) to generate the Steele dossier, opposition research that focused on Donald Trump and Russia.

In his Senate testimony on August 22, 2017, Simpson explained that Steele had met with at least one FBI agent in Rome in mid to late September 2016. The former British spy had provided the unverified allegations he had compiled to that point (i.e., his private “intelligence reports,” later assembled into the “dossier”). Steele had developed a close working relationship with the FBI when he was a British agent. It is not surprising, then, that the Bureau did not just take his information; it reciprocated, imparting some sensitive information to him. Simpson explained to the Senate committee (my italics):

Essentially, what [Christopher Steele] told me was [the FBI] had other intelligence about this matter from an internal Trump campaign source, and that — that they — my understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing, and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump campaign.

Simpson declined to answer more questions about this unidentified “human source.” But when the media treated his revelation as a bombshell, he realized it would cause a feeding frenzy: Congress, the media, and the public would demand to know what would cause the FBI, in the stretch run of a presidential race, to use an informant against one candidate’s campaign.

On a dime, Simpson backpedaled. Fusion GPS explained to friendly media that he believed he had “mischaracterized” the source. He must have been talking about George Papadopoulos — not a “human source” in the sense of willing informant or spy, but a person attached to the campaign whose statements to an Australian diplomat had been passed to the FBI (through channels that, we shall see, have still not been explained).

On further review, I don’t buy this explanation (although I uncritically accepted it in a column about Simpson’s testimony early this year).

The Timing Doesn’t Compute
Simpson’s testimony was released to the public on January 9, 2018. That was just a few days after the New York Times had published its big New Year’s weekend story claiming, based on anonymous intelligence officials, that the Russia investigation had been opened sometime in July 2016. The catalyzing event, we were told, was a report to the FBI that Papadopoulos, a young Trump-campaign adviser, had alleged that Russia possessed thousands of stolen Hillary Clinton emails. According to the story, Papadopoulos had been informed of this by Joseph Mifsud, a London-based academic who professed to have Kremlin connections. A few weeks later, while drinking in a London bar in May 2016, Papadopoulos blabbed the news to Alexander Downer, an Australian diplomat.

According to the Times, when hacked Democratic National Committee emails started being published in July 2016, Australian officials surmised that this development could be related to Papadopoulos’s boozy claim; therefore, the paper suggests, they routed the information to their American counterparts. But when we peruse the story, we find that the Times is drawing an inference that the FBI must have gotten the information from the Australian government; there is no solid confirmation that this happened. Indeed, the story evinces bewilderment that two months supposedly elapsed between the Papadopoulos–Downer meeting and the FBI’s learning about it. There is no attempt to describe how this assumed transmission occurred, and the Aussies refused to comment on the matter.

Though the Papadopoulos–Downer story is rickety, it nevertheless served Simpson’s purpose of backing away from his “human source” testimony. Alas, his story does not add up, either.

To repeat, while Simpson’s testimony became public in January 2018, he actually gave the testimony five months earlier, in August 2017. Papadopoulos’s name is not uttered in the 312-page transcript, just as it goes unmentioned in the Steele dossier.

Papadopoulos was virtually unheard of until October 30, 2017, when Special Counsel Mueller announced his guilty plea and filed a factual recitation of his offense conduct. Two weeks after that information became public, Simpson was asked about Papadopoulos in a fleeting exchange during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee (see November 14, 2017, transcript, page 163.) Interestingly, the subject came up in the context of Trump-related research Simpson had done separate and apart from his collaboration with Steele. Simpson claimed that he had been looking at Papadopoulos “for a while” and regarded him as “a clone of Carter Page”; but he admitted that he actually knew nothing significant about Papadopoulos beyond what Mueller had included in the information filed in court at the time of the guilty plea.

The information Mueller had filed in October said nothing about either Papadopoulos’s meeting with Downer or the subsequent purported transmission of Papadopoulos’s claims from Australian authorities to the FBI. That story did not come out until the Times article on December 30.

When Simpson testified that Steele told him the FBI had a human source, I think Simpson meant exactly what that testimony implied.

Only after that, and in the uproar over the January 9 release of Simpson’s five-month-old Senate testimony, did Fusion suggest that Simpson must have been referring to Downer, the Australian diplomat, when he told the Senate that the FBI had a “human source” inside the Trump campaign. That, however, is not credible. When Simpson gave the “human source” testimony in August 2017, there is no indication that he knew anything about Downer. Even if we buy his House testimony in November that he had heard of Papadopoulos before the latter’s October plea, Simpson conceded then that he knew nothing more than what Mueller had disclosed — which did not include the Papadopoulos–Downer meeting and the communication of it to the FBI.

Simpson is a smart guy, an accomplished investigative journalist, and now a full-time professional researcher, whose attention to detail is impressive. Steele is an experienced intelligence officer. The two are longtime friends and collaborators who understand each other well. Informants are central to both of their professions. By their telling, Steele’s decision to bring their research to the FBI and his subsequent dealings with the Bureau were a matter of extensive discussion and great concern.

Consequently, I do not believe that Steele gave his friend Simpson a cryptic account of his meeting in Rome with the FBI; nor do I believe that Simpson got confused and “mischaracterized” what he was told. When Simpson testified that Steele told him the FBI had a human source, I think Simpson meant exactly what that testimony implied: that someone from the FBI told Steele in August 2016 — while the investigation was heating up, while the FBI was ramping up its efforts in preparation for seeking surveillance warrants from the FISA court — that the Bureau had an informant.

A Human Source . . . in Britain, Not Australia
Three other things to consider:

1. For months, the House Intelligence Committee sought disclosure of the “electronic communication” (EC) by which the FBI opened its counterintelligence-investigation file on Papadopoulos, reportedly in July 2016. Counterintelligence involves national-security powers, and it is a weighty matter to apply these powers — as opposed to criminal-investigative authorities — to American citizens. The committee therefore wanted to know what foreign intelligence had spurred the probe, particularly in light of intelligence leaks that an Australian government report about Papadopoulos was the cause.

Yet, when Nunes was finally allowed to look at the EC, only after threatening contempt proceedings against Justice Department officials, he learned that the FBI did not set forth any foreign intelligence — there was no Australian report, no “Five Eyes intelligence product” at all, Nunes told Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo.

Did the FBI’s British operation involve using a spy to interact with Trump-campaign figures, such as Papadopoulos, on British soil?

If the FBI was not explicitly relying on intelligence from a foreign ally, on what was it relying to open a counterintelligence investigation focusing on an American political campaign? According to what the New York Times reported in April 2017, “current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials” said the investigation was triggered by Carter Page’s trip to Moscow. That would implicate the Clinton-campaign-generated Steele dossier, which claimed that Page’s trip furthered a Trump–Russia conspiracy. I’ve detailed how, as reliance on the unverified dossier has become more controversial, the media and intelligence agencies have tried to minimize its importance to the opening of the investigation.

Did the dossier instigate not only FISA surveillance but human spying against the Trump campaign?

2. As Larry O’Connor has recounted in the Washington Times, Obama’s former CIA director John Brennan was asked, by NBC’s Chuck Todd, whether the FBI’s investigation was triggered by intelligence from the Five Eyes (i.e., the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia — five Anglosphere governments that have longstanding, unusually close intelligence-sharing arrangements). Brennan would not answer the question directly, but he emphasized U.S. ties not with Australia but with Britain:

The F.B.I. has [a] very close relationship with its British counterparts. And so, the F.B.I. had visibility into a number of things that were going on involving some individuals who may have had some affiliation with the Trump campaign. And so, the intelligence that we collected was pulsed against that. And I thought it would have been derelict if the F.B.I. did not pull the threads, investigative threads, on American persons who might have been involved with Russia and working on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly.

Sounds like the FBI, with support from the CIA, had some cooperative intelligence venture with British authorities that enabled the Bureau to monitor Trump-campaign figures. That is significant because Papadopoulos has acknowledged meeting in Britain with people who claimed Kremlin ties and who told him Russia had thousands of Clinton’s emails. Did the FBI’s British operation involve using a spy to interact with Trump-campaign figures, such as Papadopoulos, on British soil? Brennan didn’t say.

3. In December 2017, McCabe testified in a closed hearing before the House Intelligence Committee. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reported that McCabe “said on more than one occasion that the FBI had worked hard to verify the dossier, telling lawmakers that the FBI had at one point sent investigators to London as part of that effort” (emphasis added).

Did the FBI’s work to verify the dossier in London involve a human source? Did it involve other human sources in other places?

Christopher Steele, the former British spy with extensive British intelligence and FBI connections, told his friend Glenn Simpson that the FBI had penetrated the Trump campaign with a “human source” who was helping corroborate the dossier. There seems to be more corroboration for this assertion than for the sensational allegations in Steele’s dossier.

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