By Chuck Ross
A Justice Department watchdog’s report released Monday definitively debunked one of the Steele dossier’s most pervasive allegations of collusion, while severely undermining other hair-raising claims about Donald Trump and former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The report is unsparing of both Christopher Steele, the dossier author, and the FBI’s handling of the salacious document.
It paints a picture of Steele, a former British spy, as an eager gun-for-hire encumbered with a poor sense of judgment. The FBI, while absolved of a top-down, politically-motivated conspiracy to take down Trump, failed to verify any of Steele’s allegations, and also omitted key pieces of information that contradicted the dossier.
“Our review revealed instances in which factual assertions relied upon in the first [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] application targeting Carter Page were inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation, based upon information the FBI had in its possession at the time the application was filed,” reads the report.
The report details how Steele collected information in the dossier, as well as the limited steps that the FBI took to verify the document.
The dossier’s most specific allegation of Trump-Russia collusion — that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen visited Prague in August 2016 to pay off Russian hackers — was “not true,” FBI officials determined, according to the IG report.
When FBI investigators did obtain valuable insight into Steele’s work, the bureau largely failed to include it in applications to continue surveillance against Carter Page.
According to the IG report, Steele’s dossier played a “central and essential” decision in the FBI’s decision to apply for FISA warrants against Page. FBI investigators considered seeking a FISA warrant against the Trump adviser in August 2016, but were rejected by bureau lawyers who did not believe there was enough probable cause to establish that Page was a Russian agent.
That changed on Sept. 19, 2016, when six of Steele’s dossier memos arrived in the inboxes of the FBI’s core Trump-Russia investigative team. The IG report says that the FBI immediately sought to obtain FISAs. They were approved on Oct. 21, 2016.
The IG report quotes Steele’s primary source for the dossier, who told the FBI in a series of interviews in 2017 that Steele misreported several of the most troubling allegations of potential Trump blackmail and Trump campaign collusion.
The source told the FBI in interviews in early 2017 that the dossier’s steamiest allegation — that the Kremlin had blackmail video of Trump in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes — was based on “rumor and speculation.”
Steele said in the dossier that his source had confirmed the incident, which allegedly occurred in 2013 at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow. But according to the IG report, Steele’s source told the FBI they had been unable to confirm that the incident occurred.
The FBI relied heavily on Steele’s information to assert to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that Page was acting as an agent of Russia. The dossier alleged that Page was part of the Trump campaign’s “well-developed conspiracy of coordination” with the Kremlin and that he had worked under the direction of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Steele also alleged that it was Page’s idea to release hacked DNC emails through WikiLeaks.
Steele also cited sources who claimed that Page met in July 2016 with Kremlin insiders Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin. Page allegedly spoke to Sechin about relaxing U.S. sanctions against Russia in exchange for a stake in the upcoming sale of oil giant Rosneft, which Sechin controlled. According to Steele, Page allegedly spoke with Diveykin about compromising materials on both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Page has vehemently denied meeting Sechin or Diveykin. The IG report said that investigators were unable to determine whether Page met either Russian.
According to the IG report, investigators reviewed text messages from Steele’s source regarding the alleged Page/Sechin meeting which showed that there was no mention of a bribe.
The FBI also withheld information that was favorable to Page, but derogatory for Steele, according to the IG.
The report cites one example of the FBI failing to tell the FISC that Page was also an “operational contact” for five years for the CIA. A CIA employee had informed FBI agents in August 2016 that Page was given a “positive assessment” after providing information about a Russian intelligence operative with whom he had interacted.
The FBI also failed to include Page’s statement in August 2016 to a confidential FBI source named Stefan Halper that he had never met Manafort. That statement was significant because Steele asserted in the dossier that Page was working under Manafort’s direction to conspire with the Kremlin.
Investigators also withheld information provided by people who knew Steele that would have raised questions about the quality of his work. Steele associates who spoke to the FBI described the London-based spook as “smart” and a “person of integrity.” But others said that he demonstrated a “lack of self-awareness” and “poor judgment.” Another person said that Steele’s work was “underpinned by poor judgment.”
The FBI also failed to disclose Steele’s statements to the bureau’s investigative team that an individual who unwittingly provided information to Steele’s primary source for the dossier was a “boaster” and “embellisher.”
The IG report also quotes FBI agents who met with Steele before the 2016 election who believed that he misled the bureau about his contacts with the media.
“[C]learly he wasn’t truthful with us,” an FBI special agent who met with Steele in Rome on Oct. 3, 2016 told the IG.
Weeks before that meeting, Steele and his colleague at Fusion GPS briefed a handful of reporters in Washington, D.C. about the dossier. One of those reporters, Michael Isikoff, published a story on Sept. 23, 2016 that detailed Steele’s allegations about Carter Page. According to the IG, FBI agents who worked on the Trump-Russia investigation did not initially believe that Steele was a source for Isikoff.
According to the IG, Steele did not acknowledge meeting with reporters, and expressed frustration that news reports at the time threatened to expose his sources.
Steele’s main FBI handler told the FBI that the former spy’s contacts with the press “blew his mind.”
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