FBI’s Steele story falls apart: False intel and media contacts were flagged before FISA
by John Solomon, The Hill
The FBI’s sworn story to a federal court about its asset, Christopher Steele, is fraying faster than a $5 souvenir T-shirt bought at a tourist trap.
Newly unearthed memos show a high-ranking government official who met with Steele in October 2016 determined some of the Donald Trump dirt that Steele was simultaneously digging up for the FBI and for Hillary Clinton’s campaign was inaccurate, and likely leaked to the media.
Her observations were recorded exactly 10 days before the FBI used Steele and his infamous dossier to justify securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and the campaign’s contacts with Russia in search of a now debunked collusion theory.
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It is important to note that the FBI swore on Oct. 21, 2016, to the FISA judges that Steele’s “reporting has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings” and the FBI has determined him to be “reliable” and was “unaware of any derogatory information pertaining” to their informant, who simultaneously worked for Fusion GPS, the firm paid by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton campaign to find Russian dirt on Trump.
That’s a pretty remarkable declaration in Footnote 5 on Page 15 of the FISA application, since Kavalec apparently needed just a single encounter with Steele at State to find one of his key claims about Trump-Russia collusion was blatantly false.
In her typed summary, Kavalec wrote that Steele told her the Russians had constructed a “technical/human operation run out of Moscow targeting the election” that recruited emigres in the United States to “do hacking and recruiting.”
She quoted Steele as saying, “Payments to those recruited are made out of the Russian Consulate in Miami,” according to a copy of her summary memo obtained under open records litigation by the conservative group Citizens United. Kavalec bluntly debunked that assertion in a bracketed comment: “It is important to note that there is no Russian consulate in Miami.”
Kavalec, two days later and well before the FISA warrant was issued, forwarded her typed summary to other government officials. The State Department has redacted the names and agencies of everyone she alerted. It is unlikely that her concerns failed to reach the FBI.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and ranking member of its Subcommittee on Government Operations, told me late Thursday he had confirmed with U.S. officials that Kavalec’s memo was forwarded to the FBI in the Oct. 13, 2016, email.
“This once again shows officials at the FBI and (Department of Justice) DOJ were well aware the dossier was a lie — from very early on in the process all the way to when they made the conscious decision to include it in a FISA application,” he said. “The fact that Christopher Steele and his partisan research document were treated in any way seriously by our Intelligence Community leaders amounts to malpractice.”
FBI and DOJ officials did not respond to a request for comment.
But it is almost certain the FBI knew of Steele’s contact with State and his partisan motive. That’s because former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland says she instructed her staff to send the information they got from Steele to the bureau immediately and to cease contact with the informer because “this is about U.S. politics, and not the work of — not the business of the State Department, and certainly not the business of a career employee who is subject to the Hatch Act.”
Even if the FBI didn’t get Kavalec’s memo, it is just as implausible that the bureau couldn’t figure out, during the many hours that its agents spent with Steele, what Kavalec divined in a few short minutes: He was political, inaccurate, spinning wild theories and talking to the media.
All those concerns would weigh against Steele’s credibility and should have been disclosed to the judges under the honor system that governs the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, experts say.
Kavalec’s handwritten notes clearly flagged in multiple places that Steele might be talking to the media.
“June — reporting started,” she wrote. “NYT and WP have,” she added, in an apparent reference to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Later she quoted Steele as suggesting he was “managing” four priorities — “Client needs, FBI, WashPo/NYT, source protection,” her handwritten notes show.
Those same notes suggest Steele spun some wild theories to State, including one that the Russians had a “plant in DNC” and had assembled an “HRC dossier,” apparent references to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton.
She expounded in her typed memo. “The Russians have succeeded in placing an agent inside the DNC,” she quoted Steele as saying.
Steele offered Kavalec other wild information that easily could have been debunked before the FISA application — and eventually was, in many cases, after the media reported the allegations — including that:
- Trump lawyer Michael Cohen traveled to Prague to meet with Russians;
- Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort owed the Russians $100 million and was the “go-between” from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Trump;
- Trump adviser Carter Page met with a senior Russian businessman tied to Putin;
- The Russians secretly communicated with Trump through a computer system.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released last month, dispelled all those wild theories while hardly mentioning Steele, except for a passing reference to his dossier being “unverified.” That’s significant, because the FISA request from October 2016 that rested heavily on Steele’s information was marked “verified application” before the FBI submitted it to the court.
And, as I reported earlier this week, Kavalec’s memo clearly warned that Steele had admitted his client was “keen” to get his information out before Election Day. In other words, he had a political, rather than an intelligence, deadline.
David Bossie, head of Citizens United, called on State and the FBI to release the rest of Kavalec’s information they redacted: “Christopher Steele was a political operative. The American people have a right to know why the FBI took this garbage to the FISA court.”
Kavalec’s notes aren’t the only red flag that should have caught the FBI’s attention before the bureau vouched for Steele’s credibility.
Notes and testimony from senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr make clear Steele admitted early on that he was “desperate” to get Trump defeated in the election, was working in some capacity for the GOP candidate’s opponent, and considered his intelligence raw and untested. Ohr testified that he alerted FBI and other senior Justice officials to these concerns in August 2016.
Steele eventually was fired by the FBI for leaking to the press — in violation of his source agreement with the bureau — and lying about it. But that did not happen until Nov. 1, 2016 — after the FISA warrant was secured. And, even then, the court wasn’t notified until a few months later, well after Election Day.
Steele’s admission of media contacts on Oct. 11, 2016, and the mere existence of his meeting at the State Department likewise violated his confidentiality agreement with the bureau and clearly were discoverable well before the FISA warrant was secured Oct. 21, 2016.
If the State Department and Ohr could figure out that Steele was a partisan, paid by a political client and facing an Election Day deadline to broadcast raw intelligence that in some cases probably was false, the FBI should have done the same before it ever envisioned taking his evidence to a FISA court.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.
Note: This article was updated from the original version to include information from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).