The Justice Department’s report on the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane probe is the first official account of sources relied on by Christopher Steele to write a dossier that damaged President Trump, energized the FBI and ultimately proved to be untrue.
The Justice Department inspector general’s report shows that an anonymous phone call with a Steele source provided the unverified conspiracy theory to trigger a Trump campaign wiretap.
Mr. Steele talked to the FBI but refused to reveal his murky network. But the FBI was able to locate his “primary sub-source.” After interviewing the Moscow-based person three times in 2017, the results “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting,” the IG report said.
The primary source told the FBI that what he conveyed to Mr. Steele “was just talk.” He never knew for sure the identity of one call-in source who became instrumental in Mr. Steele’s dossier.
That contact is described by the IG as sub-source Person 1 and by Mr. Steele in his dossier as “Source E.” In a 20-minute phone call with the primary source, Person 1 provided the critical allegations — a Russia-Trump conspiracy — that persuaded the FBI to seek a year’s worth of wiretaps on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. Mr. Steele later would describe Person 1 as a “boaster.”
The IG described Source E as running a Russia-U.S. organization in the United States at the time. Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS, handled Mr. Steele and gave Source E’s identity to a Justice Department official.
Even after hearing the primary source’s contradictions with Mr. Steele’s account, the FBI never amended its wiretap warrants to convince a judge that Mr. Page was an agent of Russia, the IG said.
Mr. Page was exonerated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The 434-page report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz contained no source identities. But it does detail Mr. Steele’s network, which went from his London private intelligence firm to a “primary sub-source” who, in turn, had his own orbit of informants in the Kremlin.
This primary source would break with Mr. Steele and tell the FBI in January 2017, after BuzzFeed posted the dossier, that supposed incidents never happened, according to the IG report.
An FBI agent told the IG that Mr. Steele misled them on several issues.
In a rare on-the-record statement, Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer, says through his Washington attorneys that the IG never provided the primary sub-source’s allegations against him for a response. Mr. Steele says he has notes and recordings from his talks with the primary sub-source that he implied will contradict the source’s IG testimony.
In a 2017 court declaration in London, where he faces a defamation lawsuit, Mr. Steele said he had not confirmed any Trump conspiracy allegations. He said he cautioned American journalists, with whom he had met during the campaign, to confirm first before publishing.
That plan blew up on Jan. 10, 2017, when BuzzFeed posted the entire 35-page dossier, a series of memos from June to December 2016. A BuzzFeed reporter had photographed each page in the office of — David Kramer, a Sen. John McCain aide who was working in December to spread the allegations all over Washington power centers.
Mr. Steele was paid by Fusion GPS, an investigative firm in Washington, which received financing from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. The arrangement meant that Democrats were importing foreign opposition research from the Kremlin to try to destroy the Trump candidacy.
The IG report tells of a crucial meeting between FBI officials and Mr. Steele in Rome in early October 2016. The FBI wanted two commitments from a recalcitrant Mr. Steele: the names of his sources and a commitment to keep investigating Mr. Trump. A House report said the FBI offered him $50,000.
At that moment, the FBI was about to make a historic investigative decision: place an intrusive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on Mr. Page. The FBI didn’t adequately corroborate the allegations, which today have been disproved.
In Rome, based on notes by an agent and an intelligence analyst, Mr. Steele explained how he farmed out research to the primary source.
Mr. Steele’s dossier describes one of his sources as a former Kremlin intelligence chief who in 2016 held a senior post in the Foreign Ministry. The notes show that Mr. Steele called the person collectively known as Person 1 and Source E a “boaster” and egotist” who “may engage in some embellishment.”
Mr. Horowitz thought it remarkable that Mr. Steele’s characterization of Person 1 was never included by the FBI Office of Intelligence as exculpatory evidence in four Page warrant applications.
The IG’s report pointed out that all of Steele’s information that the FBI inserted into the FISA applications came from the primary sub-source and Person 1.
His major allegations:
⦁ That Mr. Page, while in Moscow to deliver a university commencement address, attended secret meetings with Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft’s diversified energy conglomerate, and Kremlin official Igor Divyekin.
Mr. Page has always denied such a meeting and the Mueller investigation did not establish it happened.
⦁ That Mr. Page worked with campaign manager Paul Manafort in an election conspiracy with the Kremlin.
Mr. Page said he did not know and had never met Manafort. Mr. Mueller said there was no evidence the two colluded with Moscow.
⦁ That Russia released stolen Democratic Party emails to Wikileaks to help Mr. Trump in a strategy conceived by Mr. Page.
The intelligence community confirmed that this was the Kremlin’s strategy. Before Mr. Steele reported this in an August 10, 2016, memo, the Clinton campaign, which had ties to Obama intelligence officials, stated publicly in July that Moscow leaked the emails to hurt Mrs. Clinton.
‘Rumor and speculation’
The Clinton team hired the cyber investigative firm CrowdStrike, which reported in June that Russian military units hacked Democratic computers — the same finding as U.S. intelligence.
During the drafting FISA warrants, an FBI Office of Intelligence attorney asked the Crossfire Hurricane unit if its information was “reliable” since Mr. Steele’s was collecting secondhand data.
The IG found no record of a reply. The attorney was mollified after the Rome meeting where Mr. Steele provided more source information. Yet, the IG said, the primary sub-source never had access to the actual information he relayed to Mr. Steele.
Since the primary sub-source was Mr. Steele’s exclusive source for Kremlin information, that person’s version of events became increasingly important by January 2017, as the FBI filed its first three-month wiretap renewal on Mr. Page.
It was then that the FBI located the primary person and negotiated with his attorney for interviews that happened in January, March and May 2017.
The first encounter was headed by David Laufman, chief of the Justice Department’s National Security Division counterintelligence section.
The sessions, the IG said, “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting.”
The dossier had just been published by BuzzFeed. When the primary source read it, alarm bells went off.
Mr. Steele “misstated or exaggerated the primary sub-sources statements in multiple sections of the reporting,” the IG said.
The primary source said that, contrary to Mr. Steele’s writing of Mr. Trump’s supposed sexual adventure at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton being confirmed, he told Mr. Steele it was “rumor and speculation.”
The primary source said one of his Kremlin contacts provided the part about Mr. Sechin, but made no mention of offering any brokerage commission to Mr. Page. The FBI reviewed the text message and saw no mention of a bribe.
In the March interview, the primary source said he never expected Mr. Steele to put his statements in the dossier or “present them as facts.”
The primary source said he was repeating “just talk” and “word of mouth and hearsay” and “conversations that [he] had with friends over beers” and that the Ritz-Carlton story was in “jest.” He takes his source network “with a grain of salt.”
After the election, Mr. Steele asked the primary sub-source to corroborate the dossier but he “could find none.” The source said he provided the FBI with the same information in January.
Mr. Steele attributed his information on Wikileaks to “Source E” (Person 1), who the IG believes was an anonymous caller to his primary sub-source. The primary source said he did not relay any information to Mr. Steele from Source E about Wikileaks — raising the question of who actually provided it.
By September 2017, the Mueller team had taken over the Russia probe. Mr. Steele was interviewed again at a time when the FBI was seeking its last wiretap renewal on Mr. Page.
The FBI came away with the view that Mr. Steele wasn’t truthful.
For example, Mr. Steele said the primary sub-source had direct access to a former Moscow official. But the primary sub-source told the FBI he had never spoken to that person.
The FBI also believe Mr. Steele lied to agents in October 2016 in Rome. He complained about leaks to the press about his work. Yet, the previous month Mr. Steele had camped in a Washington hotel room entertaining a half-dozen news bureaus about his dossier allegations.
A case agent told the Horowitz team it was “terrible … Clearly he wasn’t truthful with us. Clearly.”
The FBI contacted one of the primary sub-source’s contacts who was supposedly the source for one of the more exciting charges — that Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly traveled to Prague in August 2016 in a conspiracy with operatives of Russian President Vladimir Putin to cover up the hacking. This person denied being the Prague story source.
The Mueller report, and now the Horowitz report, both say Mr. Cohen didn’t travel to Prague.
The bottom line according to the IG: the Crossfire Hurricane team led by agent Peter Strzok never told the Office of Intelligence, which drafted the wiretap paperwork, about the primary sub-source contradicting Mr. Steele.
“We found no evidence that the Crossfire Hurricane team ever considered whether any of the inconsistencies warranted reconsideration of the FBl’s previous assessment of the reliability of the Steele election reports,” the IG said.
This included the heart of the affidavit’s charge that Mr. Page met with Mr. Sechin and discussed bribes.
The IG said the FBI leadership at “every level” — Director James B. Comey, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and General Counsel James Baker — supported using the dossier to obtain Page surveillance.
The IG said the full endorsement came after Stuart Evans, a Justice Department lawyer who worked with the FBI’s Office of Intelligence, warned that Mr. Steele may be a Clinton operative.
Mr. Steele, who runs Obis Business Intelligence, responded to the Horowitz report in part: “Orbis Was Never Given an Opportunity to Respond to the Claims of the Purported ‘Primary Sub-Source.’ The ‘un-redacted’ portions of the OIG Report, just described, includes the material from pages 186 to 193 of the Report addressing alleged discrepancies found in Orbis’s reporting based on interviews with Orbis’s ‘Primary Sub-Source.’”
“Orbis was not given an opportunity to respond to those materials. Public discussions about a source are always fraught with danger for the source and the source’s sub-sources. Had Orbis been given the opportunity to respond in a private session, the statements by the ‘Primary Sub-Source’ would be put in a very different light. The ‘Primary Sub-Source’s‘ debriefings by Orbis were meticulously documented and recorded,” the Steele response states.