When you look at it hard, two conclusions are impossible to escape: First, at the height of the 2016 campaign, Obama intelligence officials anxiously adopted Christopher Steele’s allegations of traitorous conduct by then-candidate Donald Trump rather than first subject his “dossier” to rigorous investigation — even though Steele himself admits that his “raw,” “unverified” reports might not be true.
Second, at the same time the FBI was receiving Steele’s reports — which were based on multiple-hearsay from anonymous Russian sources, and paid for by the Clinton campaign — Obama intelligence officials were briefing congressional leaders about them, thereby ensuring that they’d be publicized just six weeks before Election Day.
This is the second of two columns addressing the relationship between Steele and American government officials. To recap, Steele is a former British intelligence agent who compiled a “dossier” of uncorroborated reports alleging a Trump–Kremlin conspiracy. Steele was retained for this project by his contractor, the research firm Fusion GPS. The work was paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, through their lawyers.
The first column, on Monday, dealt with the recent referral of Steele to federal law-enforcement agencies by two senior Senate Judiciary Committee members. Republican senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham seek an investigation and potential prosecution of Steele for making false statements to the FBI. Though most of the referral is classified and non-public, we can glean that it focuses on Steele’s representations about his communications with journalists regarding dossier information.
In this second column, we deal with the more important matter of representations based on Steele’s reports that were made to Congress and the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) Court by the FBI, the Justice Department, and other Obama-administration intelligence officials. To grasp why it was egregious for U.S. officials to broadcast these claims as if their credibility were established — when it had not even been tested — we consider Steele’s own assessment of his work.
The dossier contained very little hedging. In the four corners of the document, with seemingly unreserved confidence in his informants, Steele asserted that the Trump campaign was engaged in a corrupt scheme with the Putin regime. He maintained that the Kremlin had a five-year relationship with Donald Trump, cultivating him with support and empathy, but controlling him (or at least laying the groundwork to do so) by blackmail. Steele alleged that the Trump campaign was actively complicit in Russian hacking of the Democrats. He reported that the Trump campaign was negotiating a quid pro quo with the Kremlin in which, if Trump were elected, sanctions against Russia would be dropped in exchange for past and future Russian accommodations of Trump. There are other claims, some involving lurid sexual escapades, but these are the main ones.
In the stretch run of the campaign, Fusion — which, again, was being paid by the Clinton campaign (through lawyers) — induced Steele to brief Clinton-friendly media about his findings. Steele provided this information to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, The New Yorker, CNN, and Mother Jones. In so doing, he appears to have conveyed the same tone of certainty in which the dossier is couched — the same confidence about his informants and alarm about their Trump allegations.
This tone is reflected in media reporting. For example, Michael Isikoff, in his Yahoo story on September 23, 2016, breathlessly related that “U.S. officials” were spun up about “intelligence reports” that Trump-campaign adviser Carter Page had met with top Kremlin operatives in Moscow. The officials intimated that this Trump-campaign pipeline to Putin could be connected to “mounting concerns within the U.S. intelligence community about Russian cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee” — a reference to the publication of hacked DNC emails that had begun in late July and that U.S. intelligence agencies have blamed on the Kremlin.
Mother Jones reported that, along with Steele’s other sensational findings, the “hair-raising” information he’d learned about Trump’s purported sexual encounters was grist for blackmail by the Kremlin. Steele said his reports had the FBI in a state of “shock and horror.” And indeed, as I have recounted, we now know from internal FBI texts that, at the same time Steele’s reports were being fed to the bureau, top counterintelligence officials were discussing the need for an “insurance policy” against a Trump presidency and exclaiming among themselves, “omg, i cannot believe we are seriously looking at these allegations and the pervasive connections.” Describing his reports in the Mother Jones interview, Steele asserted, “This was something of huge significance, way above party politics.”
Things changed, though, when Steele was sued for libel after the dossier was published in early 2017. Suddenly, when he was in a forum where it was clear to him that making exaggerated or false claims could cost him dearly, he decided his allegations were not of such “huge significance” after all — as Rowan Scarborough detailed in a Washington Times news story.
When Christopher Steele was in a forum where it was clear to him that making exaggerated or false claims could cost him dearly, he decided his allegations were not of such ‘huge significance’ after all.
One of the libel suits against Steele was filed in London by Aleksej Gubarev, whom Steele accused of participating in Russian intelligence hacking. To defend against the suit, Steele and his attorneys had no choice but to respond to interrogatories. In answering, Steele markedly downgraded the seriousness of his dossier reports.
According to Steele’s courtroom version, the dossier is merely a compilation of bits of “raw intelligence” that were “unverified” and that he passed along because they “warranted further investigation” — i.e., not because he could vouch for their truthfulness. He gave them to American and British government officials, he maintains, only because they raised potential national-security threats, not because they actually established any such threats. That, he now says, was for government investigators to figure out. In sum, Steele’s defamation defense is not that what he wrote was true but that his reports “must be critically viewed in light of the purpose for and circumstances in which the information was collected.”
There is laugh-out-loud stuff here: Steele’s declamation of his profound commitment to discretion and secrecy lest his “raw,” “unverified,” and possibly false reports defame anyone. He claimed that he and Fusion GPS had a solemn agreement not to disclose his work . . . except for whenever they decided to disclose his work — including to Fusion’s clients and to major press organs during the stretch run of a contentious presidential election. But not to worry: These discussions were “off the record,” a term Steele claims to have understood to mean “to be used for the purpose of further research but would not be published or attributed.” Right. Somehow though, when his briefings to journalists about his reports were published, he kept doing the briefings.
Steele provided these answers to the court in mid May of 2017. Interestingly, there was one question he refused to answer: When the plaintiffs asked him to identify Fusion’s clients, he responded, “This request is neither reasonably necessary nor proportionate” for purposes of enabling the plaintiffs to prepare their case.
It would be another five months before we learned that the Clinton campaign was paying for this Trump–Russia narrative.
Here, then, is the problem for the FBI: Even if Steele had represented that his shocking information about Donald Trump was ripe dead certain, that the dossier had come down from Mount Sinai, the bureau would still have been obliged to treat it as unverified gossip.
Yes, Steele’s information, if true, was indicative of a dire threat to the United States; it would have been perfectly reasonable for American intelligence agents to decide that the allegations warranted vigorous investigation. But even if Steele had been supremely confident in his claims on close questioning, those claims should have been regarded as unsubstantiated rumor unless and until they were corroborated. Clearly the information, absent verification, would have been unworthy of presentation to Congress and the courts.
To the contrary, we now know that Steele was not brimming with confidence. We now know that when pressed on the matter in a serious way — i.e., in a court case, in which much rides on his credibility, and false statements could lead to his prosecution — Steele conceded that his claims should not have been taken as true but as requiring significant further investigation. Rather than raise alarms about his “raw” and “unverified” claims, he now sounds a cautionary note.
So how did the Obama administration — the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies — treat Steele’s information? Did they grill him on it? Did they caution themselves, like libel law has cautioned Steele, that shocking allegations must be verified before being publicized?
Let’s go back to the Yahoo story on September 23, 2016. According to reporter Michael Isikoff, “U.S. officials” were then briefing “senior members of Congress” on “intelligence reports about [Trump ‘adviser’ Carter Page’s] talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin.” “Intelligence reports” appears to be a reference to Steele’s reports — there are no other known accounts of Page meeting with Putin confederates Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin — of meetings on which Isikoff’s story lingers but that Page has strenuously and credibly denied having.
After one of those briefings, [then-]Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote [then-]FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.
Patently, although even Steele acknowledges that his claims were unverified, American intelligence officials were using them to brief congressional leaders — i.e., using them as if they were refined American intelligence reports. In circular reinforcement, the congressional leaders were then referring the unverified reports to the FBI and demanding further investigation.
What else was happening around the time the Yahoo story was published? The Obama Justice Department and the FBI were seeking and obtaining a warrant from the FISA court authorizing the surveillance of Carter Page. I’ve previously outlined the applicable FISA law: The warrant could have been issued only if the Justice Department persuaded a federal judge that Page was functioning as an agent of Russia while engaged in clandestine activity that violated federal criminal law.
Well, the Steele dossier alleges that Page was functioning as an agent of Russia while engaged in clandestine activity that violated federal criminal law.
Yet, Steele says his information was unverified, and the FBI has acknowledged that Steele’s information was unverified. So . . . what did the FBI and the Justice Department represent to the FISA court to get a surveillance warrant against Page? Or, to put it another way, if the Obama administration did not hesitate to urge Steele’s uncorroborated claims on Congress, would it have resisted urging them on a federal judge?