(Jim Bourg/Reuters)Former officials are fighting over who deserves blame.
Here’s what you need to know: In rushing out their assessment of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Obama-administration officials chose not to include the risible Steele-dossier allegations that they had put in their “VERIFIED APPLICATION” for warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) because . . . wait for it . . . the allegations weren’t verified.
And now, the officials are squabbling over who pushed the dossier. Why? Because the dossier — a Clinton-campaign opposition-research screed, based on anonymous Russian sources peddling farcical hearsay, compiled by a well-paid foreign operative (former British spy Christopher Steele) — is crumbling by the day.
As I write, we mark the two-year anniversary of Robert Mueller’s appointment to take over the Russiagate probe — which is fast transforming into the Spygate probe. Special Counsel Mueller inherited the investigation seven months after the Obama Justice Department and FBI sought a FISC warrant to monitor former Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page. By then, it was already acknowledged that dossier information was “salacious and unverified,” to quote congressional testimony by former FBI director James Comey.
That was problematic on a number of levels.
If dossier claims were still unverified when Comey testified to Congress in mid 2017 (and thereafter), then those claims could not have been verified when the Obama Justice Department and FBI submitted it to the FISC as a “VERIFIED APPLICATION” in October 2016. It also had to have been unverified on January 6, 2017, when the Obama administration chose to include a sliver of the dossier in the briefing of President-elect Trump — the day after intelligence chiefs met with President Obama in the Oval Office and discussed what Russia information should be shared with the incoming Trump team.
Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, a January 2018 memo that has not gotten nearly enough attention, written by Judiciary Committee Senators Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), recounts then-director Comey’s concession that there was no meaningful corroboration of the dossier. Rather, the FBI and Justice Department included it in the “VERIFIED APPLICATION” because they trusted Steele (who, I note for the zillionth time, was not a source of information but an accumulator and purveyor of information from unverified sources. Steele’s credibility, consequently, was beside the point).
Moreover, FBI and Justice Department procedures require that information be vetted for factual accuracy before it is submitted to the FISC. The rules of the FISC require the Justice Department to notify the court promptly if misstatements or inaccuracies have been discovered. Far from alerting the FISC that information in what it boldly labeled the “VERIFIED APPLICATION” was actually unverified, the Justice Department and the FBI kept reaffirming the dossier allegations to the court — in January, April, and June of 2017.
This week, a dispute between the camps of Comey and Obama CIA director John Brennan broke out into the open — a dispute over which of them tried to force the dossier findings into the aforementioned intelligence-community assessment (ICA). This is a remarkable rift given that the dossier allegations in fact were not included in the ICA (though, again, the infamous “pee tape” claim was included in the briefing of then-president-elect Trump).
Behold how radioactive the dossier has become: Former officials now fight over which of them deserves credit for failing to further inflate its importance.
Former congressman Trey Gowdy, who was privy to some of the underlying classified record, indicates that Comey has the better of the argument. There is, it is suggested, an email trail in which the former FBI director relates that Brennan was advocating the dossier’s inclusion in the ICA.
That also makes logical sense. There is good reason to believe Brennan, though he has tried to distance himself from the dossier, pushed it on congressional leaders in the late summer of 2016 — at around the same time Steele and his Fusion GPS collaborators were pushing it on select media outlets, hoping it would blow a Moscow-size hole in the Trump campaign.
One leader briefed by Brennan, then–Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), began writing letters urging Comey to investigate the purported Trump-Russia conspiracy. Reid’s August 27 letter, apparently referring to the memos Steele was compiling into a dossier (“a series of disturbing reports”), highlights purported meetings between a “Trump advisor” and “high-ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow in July — an obvious allusion to the dossier’s claim that Carter Page met with Putin associates Igor Sechin and Igor Divyekin. (Page has always strenuously denied this allegation, it has never been verified, and the Mueller report implicitly rejects it.)
Brennan, however, is pushing back. Through an unidentified “former CIA official” (wonder who that could be!), he claims it was Comey who tried to force the dossier claims into the ICA. According to this account, Brennan, along with Obama’s national intelligence director, James Clapper, heroically refused Comey’s plea because the dossier had not been corroborated. Comey is said then to have decided unilaterally to brief Trump on part of it.
There are some flaws in this story. For one thing, Brennan and Clapper are both notorious for lying to Congress. Second, Comey has testified a number of times that the other intelligence chiefs wanted him to brief Trump on a portion of the dossier (see, e.g., here), but Brennan and Clapper have not heretofore disputed his testimony. And third, it looks like the extremely abbreviated dossier briefing was little more than a pretext to elevate the dossier into a story the media would report. That is, unlike the Obama Justice Department and the FBI, media outlets that possessed the dossier had been reluctant to use it because it had not been verified. Yet, once it was leaked that intelligence agency chiefs had used it to inform the president-elect, the dossier became news regardless of whether it was true.
Why is that relevant? Because it appears that Clapper is up to his eyeballs in discussions about the dossier with CNN shortly before CNN reported that Trump had been briefed on it.
Presumably, all of this will be sorted out now that Attorney General Bill Barr has appointed John Durham, the excellent U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to investigate the investigation.
For now, though, the telling thing is that no one wants to be associated with the dossier. Even if former director Comey is right that it was Brennan, not he, who was trying to slide the dossier into the ICA, Comey’s FBI still used it in the FISC. Plus, Comey himself did agree to brief Trump on it, though in a very incomplete way — alerting the president-elect to the lurid story about prostitutes in a Moscow hotel, but studiously omitting the tiny detail about how the FBI had used the “salacious and unverified” dossier in the FISC to contend that Trump’s campaign was in a conspiracy with Russia to undermine the election.
The urge to run from the dossier is understandable. In Washington, about ten days before the FISC authorized surveillance of Page, Steele was interviewed by the State Department official Kathleen Kavalec, who took notes that were passed along to the FBI. With very little effort (probably two minutes on Google), Kavalec was able to figure out that one of Steele’s major allegations was an invention.
Specifically, Steele claimed that the Trump-Russia conspiracy involved exploitation of the Russian consulate in Miami to transfer money and information. But there is no Russian consulate in Miami. As the Twitter investigative wiz Undercover Huber details, Steele’s source for this allegation (unidentified Source E) is also the source for the pee-tape story, as well as the foundational allegation that Donald Trump and the Kremlin were in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation.”
None of these allegations has ever been verified, and the Mueller report rejects the claim of a Trump-Russia conspiracy.
In the “VERIFIED APPLICATION” that the Obama Justice Department and the FBI submitted, the FISC was led to believe Steele was reliable and that there was no known “derogatory information pertaining to” him — no mention was made of the known errors in his dossier reporting. The first VERIFIED APPLICATION included a laborious footnote (here, pages 15 to 16) vaguely “speculating” that Steele “likely” had a political motivation to discredit Trump’s campaign; the FBI and Justice Department concealed from the court that, far from speculation, they had certain knowledge — from Steele himself — that he was passionately opposed to Trump’s election, and they further failed to disclose that the dossier allegations had been sponsored by the campaign of the opposition candidate (Hillary Clinton). Moreover, the court was told that the FBI did not believe Steele was the “direct” source of dossier information leaked to the media. Yet it not only seemed highly likely Steele was a direct media source; Steele had told Kavalec that he was managing relationships with media outlets, some of which “have” his information (he mentioned “NYT and WP” — the New York Times and the Washington Post).
No mention of Steele’s State Department interview was made to the court. In fact, the court was informed that the only government agency to which Steele had provided information was the FBI (here, page 23). This could have been an oversight; but it could alternatively be that the State Department interview was withheld out of fear that wounds to Steele’s credibility would doom the “VERIFIED APPLICATION.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross reports that Steele identified two of his sources for Kavalec: Russia’s former spy chief Vyacheslav Trubnikov and top Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov. This underscores the possibility that Steele was duped, and that the dossier is a Russian disinformation operation that U.S. intelligence agencies fell for. And there’s more: Trubnikov has intriguing ties to Stefan Halper, whom the FBI used as a confidential informant to approach Trump campaign figures Page, George Papadopoulos, and Sam Clovis.
Oh, and did I mention that Steele himself did private-eye work for Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum oligarch known to be a close Putin confidant? And wouldn’t you know it: Steele was also pushing his U.S. government contacts — such as Justice Department official Bruce Ohr — to accommodate Deripaska’s desire to travel to the U.S. The idea was that Deripaska could be a valuable informant. Evidently, the FBI lost interest when Deripaska told agents that Steele’s Trump-Russia conspiracy theory was preposterous.
What a laugh they must be having in the Kremlin.