What we have long suspected (see, e.g., here and here) has now been confirmed: The Obama Justice Department and the FBI used the unverified Steele dossier to convince a federal court to issue a warrant authorizing surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser. Confirmation came in the much-anticipated memorandum released today by the Republican-controlled House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The memo states that the Obama administration concealed from the court that the dossier was commissioned and paid for by the political campaign of Donald Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Nor was the court informed that the dossier’s author, former British spy Christopher Steele, told a senior Justice Department official that he was “desperate” to prevent Trump from being elected president.
Moreover, despite presenting dossier information as probable cause on four separate occasions — for the initial FISA warrant in October 2016, and three times in the ensuing months — the FBI failed to verify the dossier’s explosive allegations and failed to inform the court that its efforts to corroborate the allegations had been unavailing. Indeed, the memo relates that the government once presented a news story to the court as corroboration for Steele’s claims, apparently unaware that Steele himself was the source for the news story.
The dossier was a compilation of Steele’s reports, based on anonymous Russian sources. His informants provided information based on accounts that were multiple levels of hearsay removed from the events they purported to describe.
The FISA court warrant targeted Carter Page, who had volunteered to serve as a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser. The memo relates that the warrant was originally issued on October 21, 2016, and re-authorized three times thereafter. Under FISA, warrants targeting American citizens lapse after 90 days. If you’re keeping score, that means a warrant based on claims that Trump was corruptly aligned with the Kremlin was renewed twice after Donald Trump became president.
According to the committee testimony of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, the information in the dossier was necessary to the probable-cause showing required to justify issuance of a FISA warrant. That is, the warrant would not have been issued without the dossier information.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) permits the FISA court to issue a surveillance warrant to monitor the communications of a target, including his stored emails and texts, if the Justice Department and FBI establish probable cause that a person is acting as an agent of a foreign power. In this instance, Page was alleged to be an agent of Russia. Because Page is an American citizen, FISA also required the government to show probable cause that Page’s purported clandestine activities on behalf of the Kremlin were in violation of federal criminal law.
The Steele dossier’s description of a Trump-Russia conspiracy with Page at its core alleges Page’s potential involvement in serious crimes: hacking, bribery, fraud, and racketeering. As I have previously explained (see the last section of this column), if the dossier was not used to claim that Page was involved in felony misconduct, it is difficult to fathom where such an allegation could have come from.
Obviously, the obscure Page was not the main target of the investigation. What animated the government was the possibility of Russian collusion with the Donald Trump presidential campaign. It is also what animated Steele in crafting the dossier. Yet, the Intelligence Committee’s memo notes former FBI director James Comey’s acknowledgement in June 2017 Senate testimony that these dossier allegations were “salacious and unverified.”
It appears that they always were. The FBI’s assistant director Bill Priestap told the committee that efforts to corroborate Steele were in their “infancy” when the first warrant was sought. Very shortly thereafter, following a Mother Jones interview of Steele published on October 31, 2016 (i.e., ten days after the initial warrant was issued), Steele was suspended and then terminated as an informant for violating his agreement not to disclose his status as an FBI informant. The memo says that after Steele’s termination, the bureau assessed the corroboration of his claims to be “minimal.”
Yet, high-ranking FBI and Justice Department officials continued to approve warrant applications to the FISA court based significantly on Steele’s claims. The memo states that, for the FBI, director James Comey approved the first three, and deputy director Andrew McCabe the last one; for the Justice Department, the warrant applications were approved by Deputy Attorneys General Sally Yates (of the Obama administration, presumably two times), Dana Boente (as “acting” DAG during the Trump administration), and Rod Rosenstein (President Trump’s appointed DAG).
On one occasion, according to the memo, the Justice Department and FBI attempted to address the lack of verification of the dossier’s claims by what turned out to be circular reliance on a media report. The news story, published on September 23, 2016, by Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, was based on information from Steele. That is, the Justice Department represented to the court that the information it alleged in the FISA warrant application was reliable because it was independently corroborated by sources in Mr. Isikoff’s story. Unbeknownst to the FBI, Steele was Isikoff’s source.
Steele was retained for the Democrat-funded anti-Trump project by the research firm Fusion GPS. At Fusion, he collaborated with Nellie Ohr, the wife of then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr — a senior Justice Department official who worked closely with the deputy attorneys general who approved the FISA warrants. Steele met with Ohr both before and after he was terminated as an FBI source. In September 2016 (i.e., before the first warrant application), the memo recounts that Steele told Ohr he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
Papadopoulos’ alleged remark about the Russians having DNC emails did not trigger a wider investigation because, probably, the FBI KNEW how the Russian’s got the emails; Seth Rich GAVE them to the Russians.