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Questions grow about FBI vetting of Christopher Steele’s Russia expertise
By John Solomon
In February 2016, as Christopher Steele's Russia-related contacts with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI were ramping up, the former British spy emailed some intelligence reports from his Orbis security company to a potential private-sector client.
The documents were labeled "Orbis Russian Leadership Reporting," and the cover email made a most provocative claim: Russian leader Vladimir Putin might be losing his grip on power.
"I also don't believe any Russian client or associate will admit to a Western business contact that PUTIN has been weakened or is on the way out, as the intel suggests, out of fear of being branded an oppositionist," Steele cautioned the recipient. "We shall see but I hope you find them informative/useful anyway."
As for the nature of the reports, Steele boasted in his Feb. 8, 2016, email, "All are sensitive source, of course, and need handling accordingly with anyone Russian or Ukrainian."
It is unclear whether Steele also shared those same reports with his handlers at the DOJ, the FBI or the State Department. At the time, he was in contact with the No. 4 Justice official, Bruce Ohr.
But more than two-and-a-half years later, Steele's intelligence seems debunked in retrospect.
Putin is firmly entrenched in power and, in the summer and fall of 2016, he pulled off one of his most daring feats against the Western world with his meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
Yet, even more alarming at the time was the fact that Steele's reporting in February 2016 flew in the face of the CIA's own assessment of Moscow, ironically given that exact same month to Congress in the agency's annual global threats assessment.
The CIA declared on Feb. 9, 2016, just a day after Steele sent the email, that Putin appeared emboldened for a "more assertive foreign policy approach" and a Western disinformation campaign because his popularity was soaring in his homeland.
"President Vladimir Putin has sustained his popular approval at or near record highs for nearly two years after illegally annexing Crimea," the CIA reported, saying that expected protests in 2016 over a weakening Russian economy would likely be put down with "repressive tactics."
In other words, the CIA believed Putin was going nowhere and was planning to flex his muscles even more.
Steele's correspondence with the business associate is the latest piece of evidence suggesting the former British spy may not have been as well-versed or -sourced in Russian intelligence as he was portrayed when the FBI used his now-infamous anti-Trump dossier to support a request for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Both the DOJ's inspector general and multiple committees in Congress are investigating whether the FBI properly handled the Trump-Russia collusion case or whether it fell prey to political pressure and shoddy investigative work, as congressional Republicans and President Trump himself claim.
The FBI has an obligation to submit only verified information to support a FISA warrant.
If the FBI failed to perform the sort of due diligence required to ensure that Steele's expertise on Russia was reliable and that his dossier was verified, it would mark a massive failure in the FISA process.
There are growing warning signs that the FBI may have rushed its due diligence on Steele's Russia work product, perhaps in part because it had enjoyed an earlier successful relationship in a corruption case involving European soccer.
My sources tell me that FBI counterintelligence analyst Jon Moffa recently told congressional investigators in a transcribed interview that the bureau was still trying to verify the Steele dossier when it was submitted as evidence for the FISA warrant.
"Our work on verifying facts of the FISA would have been - facts of the reporting would have been ongoing at the time the FISA was generated," Moffa told House investigators, according to the transcript.
Moffa's statement isn't the only red flag.
From my earlier reporting, we know that former FBI lawyer Lisa Page told Congress this past summer that in May 2017 - seven months after the FISA warrant was issued, and nine months after the Russia probe was started - the FBI had not corroborated the main allegation in Steele's dossier about collusion between Moscow and the Trump.
And former FBI Director James Comey testified in June 2017 that the dossier was considered unverified and salacious.
Yet it was used as evidence to justify the FBI spying on the campaign of a duly-elected GOP presidential nominee's campaign, even though it started as political opposition research paid for by the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Even Steele's former boss, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, expressed uncertainty about some of the Russia intelligence Steele was providing.
During a December 2016 meeting, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr recorded Simpson in written notes as saying that some people believed one of the allegations of collusion "but others disagree."
More importantly, Simpson told Ohr that Steele's main source wasn't in Moscow but, rather, was a former Russian intelligence figure in Washington, the notes show.
"Much of the collection about the Trump campaign ties to Russia comes from a former Russian intelligence officer (? not entirely clear) who lives in the US," Ohr wrote in his notes, quoting Simpson.
In other words, Steele's intelligence was hearsay collected a continent away from Moscow.
The various expressions of uncertainty about the reliability of Steele's hearsay Russia intelligence give investigators solid reason to question if the FBI did its job in vetting his Russia expertise.
After all, helping the FBI crack a sports corruption case, as Steele did earlier in his relationship with the bureau, is a far cry from the skills and sourcing needed to unmask the true intentions of a sophisticated Russian counterintelligence operation.
And that's what makes Steele's February 2016 email to his business associate all the more significant.
If the FBI had reviewed it and compared it to the CIA's own assessment, there might have been reason to doubt Steele's Russia expertise.
We know now, two years later, that Putin wasn't on shaky ground but, rather, had solidified his power. And we know that, after two years of probing, the FBI has not turned up any public evidence of collusion, either.
There's a good chance Steele was wrong about both.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill's executive vice president for video.