Despite FBI Denials, Dossier May Have Influenced Russia Probe Opening, Growing Evidence Indicates

May 15, 2020 Updated: May 22, 2020

News Analysis

The FBI team that ran the Russia investigation in 2016 may have known of the infamous Steele dossier months earlier than when they acknowledged receiving it, several pieces of evidence indicate. They may have even known before they opened the investigation.

The FBI officials involved, most of whom have since left the bureau, said that they first received the dossier on Sept. 19, 2016. They have maintained that the dossier, which is full of unsubstantiated claims of collusion between Russia and the Trump 2016 election campaign, played no role in their opening a probe into virtually the same allegation on July 31, 2016.

One after another, pieces of evidence have emerged that put the FBI’s claim in question.

The dossier was supposedly written by Christopher Steele, a former British spy. He was paid through intermediaries by the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Steele and his employers had for months peddled the dossier to the media, the FBI, the State Department, the Justice Department, and Congress.

The first installment of the dossier was dated June 20, 2016.

Victoria Nuland, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, publicly said during an interview in 2018 that the dossier was first provided to the State Department in early July 2016. She said her view was that the material should be handled by the FBI.

Steele was an FBI informant. His handler at the time was Michael Gaeta, who was the assistant legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rome in 2016.

In early July 2016, Gaeta received a call from Steele, who asked him to come to London to urgently see something, Gaeta told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Dec. 20, 2017, according to a recently released transcript of the interview (pdf).

“So this was somebody who I viewed as credible, professional, you know, worthy of a response, when he says, I need to see you tomorrow, that I get on a plane and I go see him,” Gaeta said.

The transcript keeps the interviewee’s name redacted, but he can be clearly identified from the context as Gaeta.

The meeting in London took place on July 5, 2016, and was authorized by Nuland, who then obtained the first part of the dossier, marked as report No. 80.

This clashes with the account of Luke Harding of The Guardian, who wrote that Steele, already in June, went to Rome to brief his FBI contact—Gaeta—on the dossier.

In any case, the dossier was wholly uncorroborated, Gaeta recalled.

“Is there any independent corroboration, information that you have? Is there a videotape? Is there an audiotape? Do you have anything else?” he said he asked Steele. “And the answer was no.”

Gaeta wanted to pass it on to somebody within the bureau who could look more into it, he said.

“I couldn’t just sweep it under the rug, couldn’t discount it just on its face, because it was an established source,” he said.

His concern was to pass it on “in a manner that was completely discreet” because he didn’t want it to be spread around widely within the bureau, he said.

On July 13, 2016, Gaeta reached out to the assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) of public corruption at the New York Field Office. He knew the person and described to him the dossier’s contents.

On July 28, 2016, as Gaeta remembers it, the ASAC called back and told him to send over the documents. The ASAC then forwarded the dossier to his supervisor, the special agent in charge (SAC), according to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG) on the Russia investigation (pdf).

The IG report says that Gaeta actually sent over two of the dossier reports, No. 80 and No. 94.

Also on July 28, Gaeta sent an email to an unspecified “FBI supervisor” saying that according to Steele, reports No. 80 and No. 94 “may already be circulating at a ‘high level’ in Washington, D.C.,” the IG report states.

“Within a day or a couple of days,” Gaeta said, the New York ASAC got back to him. He gave Gaeta further instructions to send the dossier to FBI attorneys in the New York office.

“And then he adds, he goes, also, so you know, executive management—this is on maybe the 1st of August, right around then, either the 31st July, 1st August, right around then—executive management at FBI New York, meaning the SAC and the assistant director in charge, are aware of the reports and have seen the reports, and EAD level at headquarters is aware of the reports,” Gaeta said.

If correct, Gaeta’s testimony indicates that between July 28, 2016, and Aug. 1, 2016, the dossier information reached at least one of the FBI’s executive assistant directors.

There are six executive assistant directors, but given the nature of the dossier, only two were relevant: Randall Coleman, who headed the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, and Michael Steinbach, who headed the National Security Branch.

Directly under Steinbach was Bill Priestap, then-head of counterintelligence and “a central figure” in the discussions between July 28, 2016, and July 31, 2016, on whether to open the Russia investigation, according to the IG report.

Aside from talking to some of his subordinates and FBI lawyers, Priestap told the IG that he “also discussed the matter with either then Deputy Director (DD) Andrew McCabe or then Executive Assistant Director (EAD) Michael Steinbach,” the IG report states.

Based on what Priestap, McCabe, then-FBI Director James Comey, and others told the IG and Congress, the Russia probe was opened based on information from a friendly foreign government (FFG) that a foreign ambassador said that a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, “suggested” that Russia “suggested” that it had information “damaging” to Trump’s opponent, Clinton, and that Russia may release the information to help Trump.

The foreign ambassador that was mentioned, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, recalled the conversation with Papadopoulos in multiple media interviews. He acknowledged the part about “damaging” information, but never mentioned anything about Russia’s suggesting it would help Trump.

The FBI officials told the IG they received the FFG information on July 28, 2016, and that the probe, dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane,” was opened three days later solely on this information.

On Aug. 1, 2016, Peter Strzok, then-chief of the counterespionage section under Priestap, and Supervisory Special Agent Joe Pientka flew to London to talk to Downer.

It was only after that, that the Russia probe team determined that “the initial investigative objective of Crossfire Hurricane was to determine which individuals associated with the Trump campaign may have been in a position to have received the alleged offer of assistance from Russia,” the IG report states.

“After conducting preliminary open source and FBI database inquiries, intelligence analysts on the Crossfire Hurricane team identified three individuals—Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn—associated with the Trump campaign with either ties to Russia or a history of travel to Russia.”

On Aug. 10, 2016, the team opened cases on Page, Manafort, and Papadopoulos and on Aug. 16, 2016, a case on Flynn.

But there’s a problem.

“McCabe’s contemporaneous notes reflect that the FFG information, Carter Page, and Manafort, were discussed on July 29, [2016,] after a regularly scheduled morning meeting of senior FBI leadership with the Director,” the IG report stated.

Why were the officials discussing Page and Manafort before even opening the probe? The IG report is silent on this question, but the dossier could provide an answer.

The dossier’s installment No. 94, sent to New York by Gaeta, included allegations that Page, a volunteer Trump campaign adviser, secretly met with two associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin—Rosneft oil executive Igor Sechin and senior government official Igor Divyekin—during a July 2016 trip to Russia. There’s no evidence such meetings occurred. Page denied them both publicly and in a private conversation with an FBI informant.

The mention of Manafort adds more to the puzzle.

The dossier parts Gaeta sent to New York, according to the IG, didn’t mention Manafort. But Manafort is featured prominently in another report, No. 95, dated July 28, 2016, according to the IG.

No. 95 says, in part:

“Speaking in confidence to a compatriot in late July 2016, Source E, an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP, admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership. This was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy advisor, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries.”

The unsubstantiated claim of a “well-developed conspiracy” was used by the FBI verbatim in its October 2016 spying warrant on Page. The warrant was deeply flawed, the IG concluded, and the FBI has since acknowledged that the warrant’s last two renewals in 2017 were invalid, resulting in illegal surveillance.

Gaeta made no mention of sending this part of the dossier to New York on July 28, 2016. The previous report, No. 94, was dated July 19, 2016, and that was also the day Gaeta received it.

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