Just when did the FBI’s top echelon realize that the Steele dossier was unreliable? New notes released by the Senate Judiciary Committee late yesterday show the agent in charge of Operation Crossfire Hurricane realized it by mid-February 2017. Peter Strzok also knew that leaks from the investigation included flat-out false information that attempted to shore up the public case for continuing the probe, all of which raises new questions as to why the probe continued at all:
A top F.B.I. agent recognized by February 2017 that a now notorious dossier of claims about purported Trump-Russia ties had credibility problems, but the Justice Department continued to rely on it as part of its basis to renew permission to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser, documents released on Friday showed.
The documents included an F.B.I. memo recounting a three-day interview in January 2017 with a person who served as a primary source for Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier for a research firm paid by Democrats. They also included an F.B.I. agent’s notes disputing aspects of a New York Times article the next month.
The agent, Peter Strzok, had not participated in the interview of Mr. Steele’s source, in which the source had suggested that the dossier misstated or exaggerated certain information that the source had gathered from a network of contacts in Russia and relayed to Mr. Steele. But Mr. Strzok appeared to be aware of aspects of it.
In his annotations about two weeks later, Mr. Strzok questioned the reliability of the dossier.
Reacting to a line in the newspaper article that senior F.B.I. officials believed that Mr. Steele had a credible track record, Mr. Strzok wrote in the margins: “Recent interviews and investigation, however, reveal Steele may not be in a position to judge the reliability of his subsource network.”
Why is this important? It shows that the whole basis for idea that Donald Trump had colluded with Russians in warping the 2016 elections — or had been trapped by their intelligence services — had serious credibility problems well before the appointment of a special counsel. Those credibility problems went right to the top by February 2017, as the Strzok notes Lindsey Graham released show. And yet the FBI would not only rely on the Steele dossier to get surveillance extended on Carter Page multiple times, it also kept the probe alive long enough to turn it over to Robert Mueller.
The notes show something else, too, in relation to the entire raison d’être of the investigation. The NYT report that followed two weeks later claimed that “Trump campaign aides had repeated contact with Russian intelligence,” the core accusation of Russiagate. That was news to Strzok, who wrote in a recently declassified comment that the FBI had no such evidence of any meetings:
“We are unaware of ANY Trump advisers engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.”
Still, he also added, the bureau had identified contacts between Mr. Page and Russian intelligence officials before the campaign; contacts between an associate of Paul Manafort, the onetime campaign chairman, and Russian intelligence; and contacts between two campaign advisers, Jeff Sessions and Michael T. Flynn, and Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
Let’s recall the specific context of Strzok’s comments. Page, as it turned out, made contacts with Russian intelligence because he was working clandestinely for the CIA at the time. Manafort had a long history with the Russians and their intel that predated the campaign — a history of illegality which the DoJ had declined to pursue until Robert Mueller needed it for leverage. Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn’s “contacts” were with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and were entirely legitimate. And at least as far as Flynn is concerned, the FBI knew that a month prior to Strzok’s notes.
Beyond that, though, the FBI had apparently not found any basis for Crossfire Hurricane by mid-February 2017. According to Strzok’s notes, they hadn’t found any contacts between Trump or his advisers and Russian intelligence, and the only substantial input they had was the Steele dossier — which Strzok already knew was unreliable. And, as we found out two years later and after much demagoguery and more leaked misinformation, the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller never did find any evidence of collusion with Russian intelligence.
All of this leads to one question: why did the FBI continue to pursue the investigation after February 2017 when they had no evidentiary basis for it? Where was the probable cause? Who leaked misinformation to the New York Times to provide a political cover for the FBI’s investigation? Who kept this probe going when it clearly didn’t have any need to continue, and why?
Perhaps John Durham will come up with some answers to those questions. At this point, though, there doesn’t appear to be any innocent answers to them.