“The FBI deceived the House, Senate and the Justice Department about the substance and strength of evidence undergirding its counterintelligence investigation of President Trump, according to a recently declassified document and other material.
A seven-page internal FBI memo dated March 8, 2017, shows that “talking points” prepared for then-FBI Director James Comey for his meeting the next day with the congressional leadership were riddled with half-truths, outright falsehoods, and critical omissions. Both the Senate and the House opened investigations and held hearings based in part on the misrepresentations made in those FBI briefings, one of which was held in the Senate that morning and the other in the House later that afternoon. RealClearInvestigations reached out to every member of the leadership, sometimes known as the “Gang of Eight.” Some declined to comment, while others did not respond to queries.
The talking points were prepared by Lisa Page, a senior FBI lawyer who later resigned from the bureau amid accusations of anti-Trump bias, and were used by Comey in his meeting with Hill leaders. They described reports the FBI received in 2016 from “a former FBI CHS,” or confidential human source, about former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Carter Page (no relation to Lisa Page) allegedly conspiring with the Kremlin to hack the election.
Quoting from the reports, Comey told congressional leaders that the unidentified informant told the FBI that Manafort “initially ‘managed’ the relationship between Russian government officials and the Trump campaign, using Carter Page as an intermediary.” He also told them that “Page was reported to have had ‘secret meetings’ in early July 2016 with a named individual in Russia’s presidential administration during which they discussed Russia’s release of damaging information on Hillary Clinton in exchange for alterations to the GOP platform regarding U.S. policy towards Ukraine.”
But previous FBI interviews with Carter Page and other key sources indicated that none of that was true – and the FBI knew it at the time of the congressional briefings.
The Lisa Page memo anticipated concerns about the quality of information Comey was relaying to Congress and suggested he preempt any concerns with another untruth. The memo advised Comey to tell lawmakers that “some” of the reporting “has been corroborated,” and to point out that the informant’s “reporting in this matter is derived primarily from a Russian-based source,” which made it sound more credible.
By this point, however, the FBI knew that the main source feeding unsubstantiated rumors to the informant, Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent paid by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to dig up dirt on Trump, was American-based.
The FBI first interviewed that source – a Russian national named Igor Danchenko who was living in the U.S. and had worked at the Brookings Institution – in January 2017. Danchenko had told them that the anti-Trump dirt he funneled to Steele was dubious hearsay passed along over drinks with his high school buddies and an old girlfriend named Olga Galkina, who had made up the accusations about Carter Page and Manafort that the FBI relayed to Congress.
Danchenko is now under criminal indictment in Special Counsel John Durham’s ongoing investigation for lying about the sourcing for his information. The source to whom he attributed spurious charges against Trump – including his being compromised by a sex tape held by the Kremlin – was a fabrication, according to the indictment. He never spoke with the person as he claimed. Another source turned out to be a longtime Hillary Clinton campaign adviser.
The FBI did not tell the Gang of Eight that Danchenko was working for Steele and did not really have any sources inside the Kremlin, according to the script prepared for Comey, which was recently declassified as part of pre-trial discovery in Special Counsel John Durham’s probe. The FBI also concealed Steele’s identity and the fact he was working for the Clinton campaign.
Adding to the deception, Comey referred to the unnamed informant by the codename “CROWN,” making it appear as if Steele’s dossier was a product of British intelligence, although Steele had not worked for the British government for several years and was reporting entirely in a private capacity. According to the talking-points memo, Comey also withheld from Congress the fact that Steele had been fired by the FBI for leaking information to the media. Instead of sharing that critical information about his reliability and credibility – to say nothing of his political and financial motivations – Comey hid the truth about his star informant from the nation’s top lawmakers.
“If asked about CROWN/Steele” during the briefing, the memo anticipated, Comey was to tell lawmakers only that “CROWN, a former FBI CHS, is a former friendly foreign intelligence service employee who reported for about three years, and some of whose reporting has been corroborated.”
Meanwhile, FBI headquarters officials were duping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court in similar fashion in order to continue to obtain warrants to spy on Carter Page. They led judges on the secret surveillance court to believe Danchenko was “Russian-based” – and therefore presumably more credible.
The official in charge of vetting the Steele dossier at the time – and interviewing him and his primary source Danchenko to corroborate their allegations – was FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten. By March 2017, Auten knew the “Russian-based” claim was untrue, and yet he let case agents slip it into two FISA renewal requests targeting Page.
Auten seemed to become concerned about the falsehood only when the Senate Judiciary Committee asked to see the Page spy warrants. He then reviewed the FISA applications in advance of Comey briefing the panel on March 15 and raised concerns with then-FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, who was assisting with redactions to the documents before sharing them with Congress. Auten wondered in text messages whether a correction should be reported to the court. But no amendment was ever made.
Years later, in a closed-door 2020 hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee investigators finally caught up with Auten and asked him about it.
“The FISA applications all say that he’s Russian-based,” then-chief Senate Judiciary Committee investigative counsel Zach Somers pressed Auten. “Do you think that should have been corrected with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?”
Auten said he raised the issue with Clinesmith, who was convicted last year by Durham on charges related to falsifying evidence in the FISA application process. “And what response did you get back?” Somers asked. “I did not get a response back,” Auten replied.
Fraud and More Fraud
And so the “Russian-based” fraud lived on through the FISA renewals, which also swore to the court that Danchenko was “truthful and cooperative.” (Attempts to reach Auten for comment were unsuccessful. The FBI declined comment.)
The five-year statute of limitations for criminal liability related to the invalid FISA applications expires at the end of this month. It has already expired regarding false statement offenses that may have been committed during the March 2017 Gang of Eight briefings.
However, legal experts say Durham could bypass the statute by filing conspiracy charges. Some former FBI attorneys and prosecutors believe the special counsel is building a “conspiracy to defraud the government” case against former FBI officials and others. (Read more: RealClearInvestigations, 6/09/2022) (Archive)