Law & the Courts

Steele’s Dossier Source Was a Suspected Russian Spy

Former British spy Christopher Steele in London, July 20, 2020 (John Sibley/Reuters)
On the newly declassified FBI documents.

See if you can follow this: In an effort to depict Donald Trump as if he were in an espionage conspiracy with the Kremlin, the Obama administration used bogus information, from a man the FBI suspected was an actual Russian spy, to brand as a suspected Russian spy a former U.S. naval intelligence officer who had actually been a CIA informant.

Your head spinning? Mine too.

And that’s just the beginning. It turns out that Igor Danchenko, the man the FBI suspected of being an actual Russian spy, initially provided the bogus information about the American, Carter Page, through a former British spy, Christopher Steele. Through a couple of cut-outs, Steele had been retained by the Clinton campaign to dig up — or, alas, to make up — Russian dirt on Trump. Through his private intelligence business in London, Steele was known to be working for Russian oligarchs, while Danchenko was on Steele’s payroll. That is, the Clinton campaign, and ultimately the Obama administration, colluded with Russians for the purpose of accusing Donald Trump of . . .  yes . . . colluding with Russians.

Danchenko, who in 2005 reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer that he hoped someday to work for the Russian government, became Steele’s source on Trump. Even before October 2016, when the FBI and the Obama Justice Department first sought a surveillance warrant against Page based on the information Steele was compiling, it was obvious that the information was unreliable — some of it laughably so.

But the story was just too good. Nobody bothered to check the information or press Steele about its sourcing.

For months, Steele had been logged on bureau records as an official FBI informant. Nevertheless, in the most significant investigation in its modern history, the FBI did not identify Steele’s “primary sub-source,” Danchenko, until December 2016 — two months after the bureau, under oath, used the uncorroborated Steele/Danchenko information in what the FBI and Obama Justice Department labeled a “VERIFIED” application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

Wait, there’s more. The FBI could easily have figured out Danchenko was Steele’s source months earlier. So why do it in December 2016? Because by then, they had no choice. It had become necessary a few weeks earlier to boot Steele out of the investigation — at least ostensibly. That’s because he had been outed publicly as a media source for information about his investigation of Trump.

The public outing of Steele (in a Mother Jones article by David Corn, shortly before the 2016 election) should have come as no surprise. It had been obvious since at least September, when information from Steele was published in a Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff, that Steele had been leaking to the media in order to help the Clinton campaign. Yet, the bureau repeatedly represented under oath to the FISC — four times between October 2016 through June 2017 — that “the FBI does not believe that [Steele] directly provided this information [in the Isikoff article] to the press.”

To the contrary, as the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) found, there was considerable FBI suspicion that Steele was Isikoff’s source. Moreover, the FBI had continuous access to Steele. Note: I said (above) that Steele was ostensibly kicked out of the investigation. In reality, the bureau continued to get information from Steele through Justice Department official Bruce Ohr (though neither the FBI nor the Justice Department revealed that fact to the FISC). Still, as the IG concluded, no one at the FBI ever asked Steele if he was the source for the Isikoff article. Obviously, they didn’t want to know the answer — that way, they could just keep insisting to the court that they didn’t believe he was the source.

That doesn’t even scratch the surface of deceit.

When FBI agents interviewed Danchenko for three days in January 2017, they learned, undeniably, that Steele’s story about his source “network” — the story the bureau and the Justice Department told the FISC again and again — was a risible distortion. Steele did not have a network of sources; he had Danchenko. In turn, Danchenko had a motley collection of drinking buddies, a grifter, a girlfriend, and an anonymous source Danchenko cannot identify. And, as Eric Felton recounts in infuriatingly hilarious detail, none of these sub-sources could actually vouch for anything they heard, or wildly speculated, about Trump and Russia.

The “Well-Developed Conspiracy of Cooperation”
On this score, we can’t let pass the opportunity to describe what Steele and, ultimately, the FBI portentously describe as a “close associate” of Trump’s who asserted that the candidate-turned-president was in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” with the regime of Vladimir Putin.

Danchenko told FBI agents that a man he labeled “Source 6” was “this guy” whom he thinks — but is not sure — he once talked to on the phone for “about 10 minutes.” In a Thai restaurant, you see, Danchenko ran into a U.S. journalist he managed to chat up about Trump and Russia. The journalist told Danchenko he was “skeptical” because “nothing substantive had turned up” tying the two together. But the journalist referred Danchenko to a “colleague,” who advised Danchenko to talk to “this guy” via email. Danchenko took the email address and tried to reach “this guy” but didn’t get a reply.

Weeks later, though, Danchenko got a call from an anonymous Russian who never identified himself. Danchenko assumed it was “this guy” . . . but he can’t say for sure. So, Danchenko simply labeled the presumed “this guy” as “Source 6,” with whom he had a brief “general discussion about Trump and the Kremlin” supposedly having “an ongoing relationship.”

It was left to Steele, the old intel pro, to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse. By the time the craftsman was done “summarizing” Danchenko’s unverifiable, anonymously sourced gossip, “this guy” had evolved from Danchenko’s “Source 6” to Steele’s “Source E,” depicted as “an ethnic Russian and close associate of . . . Donald TRUMP,” who had “admitted” that “there was a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and Russian leadership (emphasis added). Indeed, according to Steele, “Source E” had even “acknowledged” that Russia was “behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee [DNC], to the WikiLeaks platform” — a storyline that just happened to be all over the media at that point.

As the IG has found, Steele’s allegation that Page was part of a “well-developed conspiracy” of cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, as well as the claim that Russia released the DNC emails in an effort to swing the 2016 election to Trump, were central to the surveillance application by the FBI and Obama Justice Department, and to the FISC’s issuance of surveillance warrants.

And now we know, the liberal inflation of unsubstantiated — indeed, unattributable — rumor into purported probable cause that the now-president of the United States was a Kremlin mole is not the half of it.

Why Are We Just Hearing This Now?
Once the FBI identified Danchenko as Steele’s source, agents soon realized he was the same man the FBI had investigated as a suspected Russian spy six years earlier. You can’t even make this up, so I’m not — it is in a letter and accompanying FBI report, transmitted on Thursday from Attorney General Bill Barr to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).

It is mind-boggling that this information has been withheld from the public for years, despite congressional efforts to pry it from the FBI and Justice Department since 2017 (when Republicans controlled the House). In December 2019, when the IG’s report on FBI FISA abuse was released, many critical parts of it were redacted. These included Footnote 334 on page 186, which tantalizingly stated, “When interviewed by the FBI, the Primary Sub-source [i.e., Danchenko] stated that” — with remaining lines blacked out.

After some complaints from Capitol Hill about the redactions, the Justice Department showed a bit more leg. As to Footnote 334, we were now told that Danchenko had “stated that [he] did not view [his] contacts as a network of sources, but rather as friends with whom [he] has conversations about current events and government relations.” That was vital information, but it wasn’t the whole story — a passage in the footnote remained blacked out.

Finally on Thursday, we were told the rest of the astonishing story. The now-unredacted portion states that Danchenko “was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation from 2009 to 2011 that assessed [his] documented contacts with suspected Russian intelligence officers” (emphasis added).

Apparently, the information has been concealed from the public for the sake of the Durham investigation. (When information becomes public, that complicates the ability of investigators to question people about what they know and how they know it.) But John Durham, the Connecticut U.S. attorney who is investigating “Russiagate” irregularities, informed Barr that disclosure of the information would not interfere with his investigation at this point.

2005-2010: Danchenko’s Suspected Spying for Russia
In any event, what remarkable irony. Recall (from my recent three-part series regarding the guilty plea of FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith) that the period between 2009 and 2011 is part of the time-frame during which Carter Page was an official CIA informant. He was providing the agency with intelligence about Russians with whom he was in contact — a fact the FBI did not disclose to the FISC when it framed those contacts as evidence that Page was a spy for Russia, even though the FBI had been told, by both Page and the CIA, that Page had in fact been a CIA informant.

Well, now we know that, in framing Page as a Russian spy, the FBI relied on nonsense provided by Danchenko, a man the bureau actually believed was a Russian spy, though this inconvenient detail, too, was concealed from the FISC.

As has been publicly reported, Danchenko worked for the Brookings Institution, a prominent center-left Washington think-tank, specializing in foreign affairs. Brookings feeds experts, mainly to Democratic administrations when they are in power, and serves as a Democratic administration in waiting when they are not.

When Danchenko worked at Brookings from 2005 through 2010, it was directed by Strobe Talbot, a close friend of, and later deputy secretary of state under, President Bill Clinton. Susan Rice worked at Brookings during the Bush years before becoming Obama’s national-security adviser, and career diplomat Victoria Nuland, who became a prominent assistant secretary in the Obama State Department, also worked at Brookings (she is married to Robert Kagan, a top Brookings scholar). Small world that it is, Nuland green-lighted Steele’s provision of intelligence to the State Department, was briefed on the Steele dossier during the 2016 campaign, and has acknowledged that Steele was invited to the State Department to give a personal briefing about his anti-Trump research (though she says she did not attend it). While at Brookings, Danchenko worked closely with Fiona Hill, with whom he co-wrote a research paper in 2010, shortly before leaving the country. Hill, of course, gained notoriety as an important Trump impeachment witness, owing to her time at the Trump National Security Council, to which she came from Brookings, after a stint on the National Intelligence Council under Bush-43 and Obama.

The Brookings angle is relevant because of events in late 2008 that triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation of Danchenko.

At that time, it was clear that there would soon be new Obama administration. The FBI received a tip that, at a Brookings function, Danchenko approached two of his co-workers. One was a research fellow for a person the bureau describes as “an influential foreign policy advisor in the Obama Administration.” Danchenko expressed interest in whether the research fellow would join this influential principal in the new administration. Danchenko was said to have made an offer to the two Brookings employees: If they “did get a job in the government and had access to classified information,” and wanted “to make extra money,” he could put them in touch with the right people for that sort of thing. There is no indication that the Brookings employees acted on the offer, but at least one of them suspected that Danchenko was a Russian spy.

Naturally, this tip caused the FBI to do more digging. Agents quickly realized that Danchenko was associated with two other subjects of counterintelligence investigations. In 2005, he had been in contact with a Washington-based Russian officer, with whom Danchenko seemed “very familiar.” In 2006, he been in contact “with the Russian embassy and known Russian intelligence officers.”

In fact, the FBI learned that Danchenko had visited one of these intelligence officers in his Russian embassy office. He allegedly told the officer that he hoped one day to enter the Russian diplomatic service. They went so far as to discuss future plans and Danchenko’s completing some documents for the Russian government — which, in October 2006, the intelligence officer discussed transmitting via diplomatic pouch, presumably to Moscow. The FBI also interviewed associates of Danchenko’s, who described him as pro-Russian and hopeful to return to Russia. One person recalled being pressed by Danchenko for information about “a particular military vessel.”

The bureau was sufficiently alarmed that, in July 2010, agents began the process of seeking a FISA surveillance warrant for Danchenko. But he left the country two months later, so the investigation was closed without an application to the FISC having been made, but with the understanding that the investigation could be re-opened if Danchenko ever came back to the U.S.

2017: Danchenko Is Interviewed by the FBI as Steele’s Source
He did eventually come back, and sat for those three days of interviews in January 2017. During this questioning, he utterly discredited the Steele dossier, the underlying basis for the FBI court-authorized surveillance of Page. Yet, there is no indication in the extensive FBI report of these interviews that the bureau grilled Danchenko about the 2005 to 2010 activities that had sprouted suspicion that Danchenko was a Russian spy. Subsequently, the FBI did not tell the FISC that Danchenko had been the subject of a counterintelligence probe on suspicion that he was a clandestine agent of Russia. To the contrary, the bureau told the FISC that Danchenko seemed credible — which would be funny if it were not so outrageous, since what Danchenko was supposedly credible about was the fact that the Steele dossier was incredible.

Despite Danchenko’s testimony, the bureau continued standing behind the dossier. Far from correcting the deceptive claims made to the FISC, and notwithstanding all they knew about Steele and Danchenko, the FBI doubled and tripled down: In January, April and June 2017, the Justice Department submitted 90-day renewal applications, representing to the FISC that the FBI believed Steele and his information were credible. On that basis, the court kept reauthorizing the warrants, enabling the FBI to continue monitoring Page . . . even though the investigation was turning up nothing.

Conclusion
Let’s summarize, shall we? At the very time Carter Page, a former U.S. naval intelligence officer, was an informant providing the CIA with information about Russians who might be a threat to U.S. interests, the FBI was investigating Igor Danchenko, a Russian national, on suspicion that he was a Russian agent potentially threatening to U.S. interests.

Danchenko became a contractor for Christopher Steele’s intelligence firm, whose clients included Russian oligarchs. That fact, the IG report explains, raised concerns about Steele in the FBI’s Transnational Organized Crime Unit — concerns which, Eric Felten has reported, were shared by State Department intelligence officials.

In 2016, Steele accepted a Clinton campaign-commissioned assignment to dig up Russian dirt on Clinton’s opponent for the presidency, Donald Trump. To carry out this work, Steele relied on Danchenko to gather the information. Danchenko used what he now says was a group of dubious social acquaintances, and at least one source he never identified, to provide unsubstantiated and salacious rumors and innuendo about Trump.

Steele took this information, portrayed it as sensitive intelligence from reliable sources, and presented it to the FBI — vouching that it had come from an intelligence “network.”

The FBI, several of whose investigators were found by the IG to be overtly anti-Trump, failed to corroborate Steele’s information. Yet, the bureau represented that it was “verified” to the FISC, which thus proceeded to issue warrants against Page on the theory that the Trump campaign — even, perhaps, the nascent Trump administration — was in a corrupt conspiracy with the Kremlin.

That is, a suspected Russian spy was used by our government to frame an American as a suspected Russian spy. A good friend of mine likes to say, “It’s always worse than you think.” That’s a fine epitaph for the Trump-Russia investigation.

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