F.B.I. Agent in Russia Inquiry Saw Basis in Early 2017 to Doubt Dossier

WASHINGTON — A top F.B.I. agent recognized by February 2017 that a now notorious dossier of claims about purported Trump-Russia ties had credibility problems, but the Justice Department continued to rely on it as part of its basis to renew permission to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser, documents released on Friday showed.

The documents included an F.B.I. memo recounting a three-day interview in January 2017 with a person who served as a primary source for Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier for a research firm paid by Democrats. They also included an F.B.I. agent’s notes disputing aspects of a New York Times article the next month.

The agent, Peter Strzok, had not participated in the interview of Mr. Steele’s source, in which the source had suggested that the dossier misstated or exaggerated certain information that the source had gathered from a network of contacts in Russia and relayed to Mr. Steele. But Mr. Strzok appeared to be aware of aspects of it.

In his annotations about two weeks later, Mr. Strzok questioned the reliability of the dossier.

Reacting to a line in the newspaper article that senior F.B.I. officials believed that Mr. Steele had a credible track record, Mr. Strzok wrote in the margins: “Recent interviews and investigation, however, reveal Steele may not be in a position to judge the reliability of his subsource network.”

Nevertheless, in the ensuing months, the Justice Department twice sought and obtained a court’s permission to renew a wiretap of the former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, recycling language from earlier applications that relied in part on information from the Steele dossier.

An inspector general report last year sharply criticized the F.B.I. for not telling judges that the interview had raised doubts about the credibility of the Steele information. The bureau has since conceded to the court that oversees national security surveillance that the available evidence about Mr. Page was legally insufficient to justify the last two wiretaps.

The documents were released on Friday by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. A close ally to President Trump, Mr. Graham has been using his position to try to discredit the Russia inquiry in an election year.

In a statement announcing the release of the documents, Mr. Graham called the F.B.I.’s investigation into the Trump campaign “corrupt.” An accompanying news release from his office said that “the document demonstrates that Peter Strzok and others in F.B.I. leadership positions must have been aware of the issues with the Steele dossier that the F.B.I.’s interview with Steele’s ‘primary subsource’ revealed.”

“Senator Graham’s statement represents another attempt by President Trump’s congressional lackeys to use Pete’s work product to paint the Russia investigation as a political witch hunt,” Aitan Goelman, a lawyer for Mr. Strzok, said in a statement. He described Mr. Strzok’s notes as “nothing more than a dedicated counterintelligence professional diligently vetting public reports of intelligence information.”

While Mr. Strzok was still working on other aspects of the larger Russia investigation, he was not part of the team working on the wiretap renewals, his lawyer said. Another senior F.B.I. counterintelligence official, Jennifer Boone, was supervising a team in charge of determining the sources of information for the dossier and of handling the wiretap targeting Mr. Page, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Mr. Strzok was later removed from the Russia investigation after the Justice Department inspector general discovered numerous texts on his work phone expressing animus toward the election of Mr. Trump. The inspector general, however, did not find evidence that he took or withheld any official action because of his personal opinions.

Mr. Strzok’s skeptical annotations of the Times article, headlined “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence,” were similar to congressional testimony months later by the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey disputing it. Mr. Comey did not say exactly what he thought was incorrect about the article, which cited four current and former American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

Mr. Strzok’s annotations disputed the article’s premise and other aspects. He wrote, “We are unaware of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.”

Still, he also added, the bureau had identified contacts between Mr. Page and Russian intelligence officials before the campaign; contacts between an associate of Paul Manafort, the onetime campaign chairman, and Russian intelligence; and contacts between two campaign advisers, Jeff Sessions and Michael T. Flynn, and Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, said, “We stand by our reporting.”

The wiretapping of Mr. Page was a small part of the overall investigation into Russia’s covert attempt to help tilt the election in Mr. Trump’s favor and whether any Trump campaign affiliates had conspired in that effort. The inspector general report found that the opening of the investigation met legal standards and that the Steele dossier had played no role in that decision; the agents working on it did not learn of its existence until later.

Still, the inspector general report’s uncovering of serious flaws in the wiretap applications — including numerous errors and omissions, among them the failure to alert the court to the doubts raised by the interview of Mr. Steele’s source — has made them a political focus.

The report eventually issued by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who later took over the investigation, did not rely on information from the dossier. It laid out how Russians hacked Democratic emails and sought to covertly sow discord on American social media. While it also found that the Russian government wanted Mr. Trump to win, and that the Trump campaign welcomed the interference and expected to benefit from it, it did not find sufficient evidence to establish any criminal conspiracy between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

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