A little-known FBI unit played an outsized role in allowing controversial claims by a former British MI6 spy about Donald Trump to reach the highest levels of the FBI and State Department.
The Eurasian Organized Crime unit, which was headed by Michael Gaeta at the time, specializes in investigating criminal groups from Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine.
Gaeta, an FBI agent and assistant legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, has known the former spy, Christopher Steele—who authored the controversial dossier on then-candidate Donald Trump—since at least 2010, when Steele provided assistance in the FBI’s investigation into the FIFA corruption scandal, over concern that Russia might have been engaging in bribery to host the 2018 World Cup.
According to Guardian journalist Luke Harding in a Nov. 15, 2017, article, Steele played a central role in establishing the investigation into the international soccer organization:
“Steele discovered that FIFA corruption was global. It was a stunning conspiracy. He took the unusual step of briefing an American contact in Rome, the head of the FBI’s Eurasian serious-crime division.”
Also involved in the FIFA investigation was another familiar name.
Loretta Lynch, who served as U.S. attorney general from 2015 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama, was at the time “on her second tour as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District” and was seen as an advocate for Gaeta’s team.
“Loretta Lynch was the one who said, ‘Go get it,'” a source told ESPN in a February 2016 article. “She was the one to speak with higher-ups in D.C. when that needed to happen.”
U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie oversaw the FIFA case. Dearie was also a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) judge and would later sign the third and final FISA renewal that allowed the continued surveillance of Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
In May 2015, Lynch, who had by then become attorney general, announced the indictment of 14 defendants in the FIFA case.
Russian Mafia Investigation
Gaeta also oversaw the investigation of Russian mafia boss Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Beginning in 2011, and continuing for two years, Gaeta was in charge of a major federal investigation into a money-laundering operation allegedly run by Tokhtakhounov, whose Russian ring was suspected of moving more than $50 million in illegal money into the United States.
As part of the investigation, the FBI put a wiretap on Trump Tower for two years ending in 2013, to “eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money-laundering network that operated out of unit 63A,” according to a May 2017 ABC News report. The case was unrelated to Trump.
Fusion GPS Connection
The founder of opposition research firm Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, has known Steele since 2009.
According to Harding, Simpson and Steele “knew some of the same FBI people and shared expertise on Russia.” Harding wrote that Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, “specialized in post-Soviet murk” and similar to Gaeta’s FBI unit, focused on the “intersection between organized crime and the Russian state.”
The relationship between their firms—Simpson’s Fusion GPS and Steele’s Orbis—dates back almost as long. Shortly after meeting, “Fusion and Orbis began a professional partnership. The Washington- and London-based firms worked for oligarchs litigating against other oligarchs.”
Following Steele’s involvement in the FIFA scandal, he began to provide reports informally to the State Department, Harding reported:
“These were written for a private client but shared widely within the U.S. State Department, and sent up to Secretary of State John Kerry and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was in charge of the U.S. response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine.”
According to an Oct. 24, 2017, letter by law firm Perkins Coie, they were approached by Simpson in early March 2016 on the possibility of hiring Fusion GPS to continue opposition research into the Trump campaign. Simpson’s overtures were successful, and in April 2016, Perkins Coie hired Fusion GPS on behalf of the Democratic National Committee.
Sometime in April or May 2016, Fusion GPS hired Steele. During this same period, Fusion also reportedly hired Nellie Ohr, the wife of Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr. New information now indicates Nellie Ohr may have joined Fusion sometime in 2015.
Steele would complete his first memo on June 20, 2016, and send it to Fusion via enciphered mail.
It is at this point that Steele reportedly began to reconnect with his old FBI contacts from the Eurasian serious-crime division:
“In June, Steele flew to Rome to brief the FBI contact with whom he had cooperated over FIFA,” The Guardian reported. “His information started to reach the bureau in Washington.”
It’s not entirely clear if Steele met with the head of the Eurasian division, Gaeta, or another FBI agent. Either way, Steele met with Gaeta shortly thereafter in London.
The purpose of the London visit was clear. Steele was personally handing the first memo in his dossier to Gaeta for ultimate transmission back to the FBI and the State Department.
For this visit, the FBI sought permission from the office of Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Nuland, who had been the recipient of many of Steele’s reports, gave permission for the more formal meeting. On July 5, 2016, Gaeta traveled to London and met with Steele at the office’s of Steele’s firm, Orbis.
Nuland provided this version of events during a Feb. 4, 2018, appearance on Face the Nation:
“In the middle of July, when he [Steele] was doing this other work and became concerned, he passed two to four pages of short points of what he was finding and our immediate reaction to that was, this is not in our purview. This needs to go to the FBI if there is any concern here that one candidate or the election as a whole might be influenced by the Russian Federation. That’s something for the FBI to investigate.”
In September 2016, Steel would travel back to Rome to meet with the FBI Eurasian squad once again. It’s likely that the meeting contained several other FBI officials as well:
“In September, Steele went back to Rome. There, he met with an FBI team. Their response was one of ‘shock and horror,’ Steele said,” according to The Guardian. “The bureau asked him to explain how he had compiled his reports, and to give background on his sources. It asked him to send future copies.”
According to a House Intelligence Committee minority memo, Steele’s reporting didn’t reach the FBI counterintelligence team until mid-September 2016—the same time as Steele’s September trip to Rome.
There’s one other central figure in the Trump–Russia investigation who had meaningful overlap with the FBI’s Eurasian squad: former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe:
“McCabe began his career as a special agent with the FBI in 1996,” the FBI states on its website. “He first reported to the New York division, where he investigated a variety of organized crime matters. In 2003, he became the supervisory special agent of the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force.”
McCabe remained with the Eurasian squad until 2006, when he was moved to FBI headquarters in Washington.
The CIA’s Joint Agency Task Force
Less known, but probably of greater importance, is the CIA’s joint agency task force, also known as the Fusion Center, which was created by former CIA Director John Brennan. As Brennan described it in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow earlier this month, the Fusion Center was located within the CIA and brought NSA and FBI officers together with the CIA to make sure “that those proverbial dots would be connected.”
What Brennan was outlining is the Multi-Agency Task Force, as referred to in a BBC article:
“Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. … It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic states. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence task force was created. The task force included six agencies or departments of government.”
Brennan united these normally separate agencies and funneled information to the various analysts that had been selected for the task force—which served as a clearinghouse of sorts.
“We, the CIA and the intelligence community had collected a fair amount of information in the summer of 2016 about what the Russians were doing on multiple fronts. And we wanted to make sure that the FBI had full access to that,” Brennan said during a Feb. 4, 2018, appearance on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.
As Brennan would note in his May 23, 2017, House Intelligence testimony, “I was aware of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians, either in a witting or unwitting fashion, and it served as the basis for the FBI investigation.”
For congressional investigators seeking a pathway to determine the genesis of the Trump–Russia investigation, the actions of the FBI’s Eurasian squad and the CIA’s Fusion Center might be an excellent place to start.