Several Republican lawmakers have raised the concern that the FBI was fed Russian disinformation and used it as a justification to spy on Americans, a concern that’s been exacerbated by revelations in the Dec. 9, 2019, report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General (IG).
The report revealed that the FBI applied for a deeply intrusive spying warrant on former Trump 2016 campaign adviser Carter Page, while relying on an unsubstantiated dossier of claims about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, supplied by supposedly insider Russian sources.
At least some Republican lawmakers have been concerned since the dossier became public in early 2017 that it’s been part of a disinformation operation run by Russia and possibly other actors. The IG report has added yet more pieces to the puzzle.
The Steele Dossier
The dossier was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was paid for the work, through intermediaries, by the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Steele told us that he had no evidence that his reporting was ‘polluted’ with Russian disinformation,” the IG said (pdf).
It’s not clear, however, how thoroughly Steele looked for any such evidence.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has raised a similar point for years, since he learned about the dossier and its sourcing, Grassley’s spokesman, Taylor Foy, said in a phone call with The Epoch Times.
“His concerns … have only been really confirmed as legitimate concerns by the IG report,” Foy said. “I mean, he’s been concerned that the sub-sources for the dossier could have used it as an opportunity to feed disinformation, with Steele not even knowing it was disinformation.”
The motivation of Steele’s sources has been an enigma.
Steele wasn’t paying for the information, and there’s no indication the sources had any loyalties to him or to the West in general. When the FBI finally got to interview some of them in 2017, they largely walked back the dossier’s allegations or even denied them.
The IG learned that Steele used for the dossier only one source—a “primary sub-source,” who had several sub-sub-sources.
When the FBI spoke to the primary sub-source, he or she said the information was “word of mouth and hearsay” and chat “with friends over beers.” Some of what he or she heard was made in “jest.”
One of the sub-sub-sources told the FBI that “whatever information in the Steele reports that was attributable to him/her had been ‘exaggerated’ and that he/she did not recognize anything as originating specifically from him/her,” the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report said.
And this was supposed to be “one of the key sources for the ‘Trump dossier,”‘ as the primary sub-source told the FBI.
FBI officials told the OIG that they were aware of the risk of Steele having collected disinformation. But by May 2017, the FBI “did not assess it likely that the [Steele] [election reporting] was generated in connection to a Russian disinformation campaign,” the OIG quoted a December 2017 FBI memo.
Former head of FBI counterintelligence Bill Priestap told the OIG that by May 2017, the bureau “didn’t have any indication whatsoever” of disinformation in the dossier and that he was “struggling with what the goal was” for the Russians to feed Steele disinformation.
“They favored Trump, they’re trying to denigrate Clinton, and they wanted to sow chaos. I don’t know why you’d run a disinformation campaign to denigrate Trump on the side,” he said.
Ronald Rychlak, law professor at the University of Mississippi and an expert on Soviet and Russian disinformation, sees it differently.
He said in a phone call with The Epoch Times that, like everybody else, the Russians didn’t believe Trump would win, and whatever they did that favored him was a part of their broader goal to destabilize the United States.
“I think they were simply throwing monkey wrenches, trying to divide and weaken whoever won,” he said.
The dossier could have been used to undermine Clinton, had she won, Rychlak points out. The story would be that her victory was tainted because she paid for unsubstantiated dirt from Russian actors to undermine her opponent.
“They didn’t want Trump to win. They wanted whoever won to be weakened, to be continually fighting inside the United States, instead of dealing with things around the world,” Rychlak said.
Moreover, Russia likely had scenarios in place both for Clinton’s and Trump’s win.
“We probably haven’t seen everything that was ready to go if Hillary [Clinton] had won,” he said.
Hard to Disprove
The dossier portrayed Moscow as a bad actor trying to “cultivate” Trump as its agent. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the allegations weren’t created by Russia, Rychlak said.
There are three elements common to disinformation.
One is a “kernel of truth,” Rychlak said. The dossier had that. Trump had previous business dealings with Russia to host a Miss Universe pageant. He also had his lawyer look into the possibility of building a Trump Tower in Russia, though he didn’t go through with it. Page used to work in Russia and visited in June 2016 for a conference.
The second element is a reliable source. The lies and half-truths need to be spread by a source of solid reputation. Steele was a former MI6 spy, and after leaving the British intelligence service, he had provided information to the FBI that had been relatively useful, even though the IG found that the Page warrants overstated Steele’s contributions.
The third element is that the disinformation must be hard to disprove. Pushing a story that Trump colluded with Russia would allow Moscow to control the information. Officially, the Russian government would deny it, but behind the scenes, it could keep it alive.
“If you keep the issue ‘in-house,’ so to speak, if you have control over it, it’s harder to disprove,” Rychlak said.
He gave the example of the Stalinist show trials with clergy members in the Communist block after World War II.
“They would put these guys on trial, but they control the courts, they control the evidence. … Even though, frankly, in the West everybody knew these were show trials, it was hard to disprove,” Rychlak said.
Likewise, the FBI found it nearly impossible to prove or disprove some of the most bombastic claims in the dossier.
Rychlak didn’t go as far as accusing the FBI or Clinton of being in on whatever Moscow was doing, but he didn’t absolve them of blame either.
“I think there was a lot of what we sometimes call in law ‘willful blindness’ here,” he said.
If the FBI and the Justice Department officials tried, they could have seen through the dossier, he said.
“They would have poked holes in it, they would have seen this, they wouldn’t have relied on it the way they did.”
In fact, there were red flags about Steele’s background that the FBI investigators either examined belatedly or not at all, and, in major part, failed to disclose to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which granted the Page warrants.
The IG found that Steele communicated in 2015 with representatives of multiple Russian oligarchs with “connections to Russian Intelligence Services (RIS) and senior Kremlin officials.”
One of the oligarchs, industrial magnate Oleg Deripaska, was even a client of Steele’s. The FBI team working on the Trump investigation told the IG they didn’t know about that connection.
Steele’s FBI handler, who wasn’t part of the team, “did not recall if he told the Crossfire Hurricane team about Steele’s connection to” Deripaska, but “he said he did inform the team that Steele collected intelligence on Russian oligarchs and had tried to arrange meetings between the FBI and Russian oligarchs.”
It isn’t clear how Steele gained so much trust with the oligarchs that they would depend on him as a middleman.
His “frequent contacts with Russian oligarchs in 2015 had raised concerns in the FBI Transnational Organized Crime Intelligence Unit,” the IG said.
The unit put together a report on Steele and recommended that the FBI perform a “validation review” of him, a vetting process for the bureau’s informants. Yet the review was only finished in March 2017, after “the Crossfire Hurricane team requested an assessment in the context of Steele’s election reporting,” the OIG noted.
Some information about Steele’s contacts with oligarchs was in his file from the Delta system used by the FBI to store information about its informants.
But the Trump probe team’s supervising intelligence analyst (SIA) first accessed Steele’s Delta file on Nov. 18, 2016—a month after the FBI had already used the dossier to get the first Page warrant, the IG found. The SIA told the IG that he didn’t do a “deep dive” into Steele’s past, didn’t recall reading about Steele’s oligarch contacts in the Delta file, and relied on Steele’s handler for information.
The handler “expressed surprise that the … team did not access Steele’s Delta file earlier,” the IG said.
“He said that the team should have ‘turned the file upside down’ looking for information 2 months earlier and that he assumed that some members of the team had thoroughly reviewed the file.”
Applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are overseen by the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence (OI).
OI head Stuart Evans told the IG that had his office known about Steele’s connection to Deripaska, it “would have been yet another thing we would have wanted to dive into.”
“Counterintelligence investigations are complex, and often involve, as I said, you know, double-dealing, and people playing all sides,” Evans said.
In the end, the IG concluded “that more should have been done to examine Steele’s contacts with intermediaries of Russian oligarchs in order to assess those contacts as potential sources of disinformation.”
The FBI declined to comment when contacted by The Epoch Times.