Juan Williams: The new abnormal
State Department's red flag on Steele went to a senior FBI man well before FISA warrant
In all Washington investigations, the essential questions become who knew it and when did they know it.
In the case of FBI informant Christopher Steele and the credibility of his now-disproven Russia collusion allegations against Donald Trump, we have some important clarity: Government officials confirm that an October 2016 email revealing that Steele met with State Department officials - a breach of protocol for an informant if it was unauthorized - was sent to an FBI counterintelligence supervisor.
Multiple sources confirm to me that the recipient of the State Department email was Special Agent Stephen Laycock, then the FBI's section chief for Eurasian counterintelligence and now one of the bureau's top executives as the assistant director for intelligence under Director Christopher Wray.
The email to Laycock from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec arrived eight days before the FBI swore to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that it had no derogatory information on Steele and used his anti-Trump dossier to secure a secret surveillance warrant to investigate Trump's possible ties to Moscow.
Officials tell me that Laycock immediately forwarded the information he received about Steele on Oct. 13, 2016, to the FBI team leading the Trump-Russia investigation, headed by then-fellow Special Agent Peter Strzok.
Laycock was the normal point of contact for Kavalec on Eurasian counterintelligence matters, and he simply acted as a conduit to get the information to his colleagues supervising the Russia probe, the officials added.
The officials declined to say what the FBI did with the information about Steele after it reached Strzok's team, or what the email specifically revealed. A publicly disclosed version of the email has been heavily redacted in the name of national security.
While much remains to be answered, the email exchange means FBI supervisors knew Steele had contact with State and had reason to inquire what he was saying before they sought the warrant. If they had inquired, agents would have learned Steele had admitted to Kavalec he had been leaking to the news media, had a political deadline of Election Day to get his information public and had provided demonstrably false intelligence in one case, as I reported last week.
Current and former FBI officials told me it would be a red flag for an FBI informant on a sensitive counterintelligence case such as Russia to go talking about his evidence with another federal agency without authorization.
Kevin Brock, the former FBI assistant director for intelligence, said the State Department's email in October 2016 ordinarily should have triggered the FBI to reevaluate Steele as a source.
"This is quite important," Brock said. "Under normal circumstances, when you get information about the conduct of your source that gives rise to questions about their reliability or truthfulness, you usually go back and reevaluate their dependability and credibility.
"It doesn't always mean immediate discontinuation of the source. But there are policy requirements that you exercise some form of prudence, and conduct further vetting to determine whether this source can be utilized going forward. This is particularly true if the source's information is being used in an affidavit or some other legal process."
FBI confidential sources such as Steele sign a confidentiality agreement and undergo a training session on the do's and don'ts of informing, an event known in intelligence parlance as an "admonishment." FBI records show Steele underwent "admonishment" training and signed an acknowledgement on Feb. 2, 2016.
The FBI fired Steele as an informant on Nov. 1, 2016, claiming he was caught leaking to the news media. But by that time Steele's intelligence already had been used as the main evidence to secure a Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant against the Trump campaign on Oct. 21, 2016.
The public version of Kavalec's email blacked out Laycock's name as the recipient and listed an attachment file when it was delivered last month to the conservative group Citizens United under an open records request. The blacked-out version contained only a single visible sentence, in which Kavalec wrote the FBI supervisor: "You may already have this information but wanted to pass it on just in case."
Officials familiar with Kavalec's email would only describe the contents as having to do with something Steele told the State Department during an Oct. 11, 2016, visit. They said the attachment was not a copy of Steele's now-infamous dossier or a complete set of Kavalec's typed notes from her conversation with the informant. Rather, they say, it was information Steele shared with Kavalec that she felt needed to be transmitted to the bureau.
The officials also declined to address another mystery that has caught congressional investigators' attention: Kavalec had two exchanges with FBI officials about Steele approximately two weeks before her meeting. The email contacts on Sept. 29-30, 2016, have been redacted, except for a single phrase "Thank you Kathy." Congressional investigators want to know if the earlier exchange resulted in Kavalec learning in advance of Steele's work for the FBI, or was a further tipoff to the FBI of Steele's intention to visit State, a department where he had offered pro bono information in the past.
An FBI spokeswoman declined comment. Laycock did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. State officials declined to discuss the documents.
Republican House and Senate investigators who spent two years reviewing the Russia case say they were not provided the details of Kavalec's contact with Steele or told about the existence of her handwritten and typed notes.
Lawmakers believe the new memos provide additional evidence Steele was unsuitable to be an informant before his dossier was used to justify a FISA warrant.
Their concern is heightened by the fact that Steele was working simultaneously as an FBI informant and as a paid researcher for Fusion GPS, the firm hired by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to find Russia dirt on Trump in hopes of defeating him in the election.
Congressional Republicans have said publicly for months that the FBI failed to adequately inform FISA judges that Steele was working for Trump's rival and had a bias against the GOP nominee, or that his dossier was unverified and contained demonstrably false information.
Defenders of the FBI have countered that there isn't evidence to prove the bureau knew Steele was leaking to the media or was hired by the Clinton campaign and the DNC until after the FISA warrant was filed.
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 serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.