A newly declassified section of a Justice Department inspector general’s report shows not only that the Kremlin fed disinformation for the anti-Trump dossier but also that Vladimir Putin was in a good position to know about it.
The Russian president and the dossier’s author, Christopher Steele, had close associations among Russia’s cadre of business-ruling oligarchs, government reports show. Mr. Putin regularly debriefed his oligarchs.
The information was disclosed Friday when two Republican senators revealed footnote 350 from Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz’s report on FBI wiretap abuses during the Russia election interference probe.
Of the initially censored footnote, only part of the first sentence was revealed. It said Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer financed by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, had “frequent contacts” with representatives for “multiple Russian oligarchs.”
These are the super-rich industrialists who dominate Russia’s business landscape.
Unsealed in footnote 350 was most of the previously blacked-out section. It said Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI team investigating the Trump campaign, received new information in 2017. An undisclosed source told the FBI that Mr. Steele’s damaging information about former Trump attorney Michael Cohen was “part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate U.S. foreign relations.”
DOCUMENT: Read the unclassified memo about the anti-Trump dossier
The same intelligence source told the FBI that the dossier’s allegation about Donald Trump and prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013 “was the product” of the Russian intelligence service “infiltrating a source network” of someone writing a dossier on Mr. Trump. The name is censored, but the only person known to be writing such a dossier was Mr. Steele.
How does this possibly tie Mr. Putin to knowledge of a Kremlin disinformation campaign?
Footnote 350 states officially for the first time that Mr. Steele and his Orbis Business Intelligence firm in London had extraordinary access to Russia’s ruling oligarchs — men often described as corrupt and sanctioned by the U.S.
Another government report tying in Mr. Putin, this one by special counsel Robert Mueller, adds details. Mr. Mueller disclosed that Mr. Putin has regular Kremlin meetings with his oligarchs.
The Mueller team interviewed an oligarch, Petr Aven, a billionaire partner in Moscow’s Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest commercial bank. Mr. Aven was interviewed because the Kremlin wanted him to reach out to President-elect Trump. Mr. Putin had no Trump contacts, the Mueller report said.
During his FBI interview, Mr. Aven described the Putin-oligarch relationship: “Aven told the Office that he is one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Putin in the Kremlin; these 50 men are often referred to as ‘oligarchs.’
“Aven told the Office that he met on a quarterly basis with Putin, including in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election. Aven said that he took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through. As was typical, the 2016 Q4 meeting with Putin was preceded by a preparatory meeting with Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.”
Therein lies Mr. Putin’s opportunity to know of Mr. Steele and his Trump assignment from the Democrats to probe Mr. Trump. Mr. Putin met regularly with scores of oligarchs, and Mr. Steele had communications with many of their representatives, according to the Horowitz report.
Mr. Steele also was known to the Kremlin. He served under diplomatic cover as a spy in the early 1990s in the British Embassy in Moscow. In the mid-2000s, he ran MI6’s Russia desk in London before retiring.
Footnote 350’s reference to former Trump attorney Cohen is likely the dossier’s most explosive allegation — that he traveled secretly to Prague in August 2016 to meet with Putin aides to discuss paying off the people who hacked Democratic Party computers.
No evidence of the trip ever surfaced. Cohen, now in prison on tax evasion charges, always denied being in Prague and showed his passport to reporters.
More important, the FBI concluded that the Prague journey never took place, according to the Horowitz report.
Mr. Mueller said he didn’t establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to interfere in the election.
The dossier, now known to contain Russian disinformation, was championed by some in the news media as well as Democrats such as Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California.
A fact that remains hidden in footnote 350 is the date in 2017 when the Crossfire Hurricane FBI knew the dossier contained Russian disinformation.
Agents relied on the discredited dossier that year to obtain electronic and physical surveillance warrants on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page and to pursue other Trump allies. Agents received the dossier in September 2016 and read its allegations that Mr. Trump was a Russian informant. The Mueller report contained no evidence of this.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin pushed the FBI to declassify more of the Horowitz report. They predicted more disclosures in the coming days.
“It’s ironic that the Russian collusion narrative was fatally flawed because of Russian disinformation,” the two senators said. “These footnotes confirm that there was a direct Russian disinformation campaign in 2016, and there were ties between Russian intelligence and a presidential campaign — the Clinton campaign, not Trump’s.”
The Horowitz report’s footnote 350 details Russian disinformation but does not spell out exactly how the Kremlin penetrated Mr. Steele’s dossier collection process, during which he relied heavily on a single Moscow source.
Moscow spews disinformation against the West as a natural part of statecraft and especially targets elections, as it did in 2016.
Reuters reports that the Kremlin also is attempting to muddle the public’s view of COVID-19 in Europe, according to a European Union report.
“A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding Covid-19 is ongoing,” said the nine-page internal document, dated March 16, Reuters said.
Sens. Grassley and Johnson released more unreacted foot note 350 material on Wednesday.
A fuller uncensored foot note shows the dates on which intelligence sources notified the FBI that the Michael Cohen dossier material was Russian disinformation.
The first came on Jan. 12, 2017, the same time the FBI was winning another court warrant to spy on Carter Page.
The second notification from U.S. intelligence came Feb. 27, 2017. It said that Russian intelligence penetrated Mr. Steele’s operation and provided the supposed Trump Moscow hotel incident.
Both came before then-FBI Director James Comey told the world in March 2017 that the entire Trump campaign was under investigation for any links to Russian officials.
The decisions to declassified foot note information was made by Acting Director of intelligence Richard A. Grenell and Attorney General William Barr.