Christopher Steele’s nugget of fool’s gold was easily disproven — but FBI didn’t blink an eye
Of all the wild tales that Christopher Steele spun about Russia-Trump collusion during a visit to the State Department shortly before the 2016 election, only one was deemed worth forwarding to his FBI handlers.
Long hidden, the now-disclosed email speaks volumes about both the quality of Steele’s so-called intelligence gathering and the FBI’s willingness to vet an informant who was openly biased against Donald Trump, paid by Trump’s Democratic opponent, and motivated by an Election Day deadline.
Multiple sources confirm to me that the attachment that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec sent to then-FBI section chief Stephen Laycock on Oct. 13, 2016, was a summary from Steele’s company alleging Trump and Russia might be communicating through a computer server at Russia’s Alfa Bank.
This long-debunked allegation has floated around Washington since the summer of 2016, compliments of Hillary Clinton backers ranging from a university computer science professor who spread it across the internet to a lawyer for Clinton’s campaign who delivered it to the FBI in summer 2016.
The theory — worthy of a spy novel — was that a series of data pings between a computer in Trump Tower and Alfa Bank in Moscow actually was a secret beacon alerting the Putin and Trump teams that it was time to talk about colluding on hijacking the American presidential election.
The story eventually made its way to mainstream media such as The New York Times, Slate, CNN and, just last fall, The New Yorker. It has been debunked by the FBI, and it was not mentioned as a reliable allegation in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Steele’s version of the allegation was uploaded to a private internet storage service, then downloaded by Kavalec and sent on Oct. 13, 2016, to Laycock, who immediately forwarded it to the FBI team investigating Trump-Russia collusion, according to people who have seen it.
The email arrived eight days before the FBI choose to use allegations in Steele’s so-called dossier to secure an extraordinary Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to spy on the Trump campaign in the final days of the 2016 election.
In other words, it was a clear signal for the FBI to check Steele’s credibility before offering him to the judges as a reliable informant. The reason? It was clear, convincing evidence that the FBI informant had broken protocol and was leaking to entities outside his chain of command, experts say.
Had the FBI done due diligence — and there’s no evidence it did — then its agents would have followed up with Kavalec to see what else Steele had blabbed to State. And they would have learned that he admitted he had an Election Day deadline to get his information public, was leaking to the news media and had provided demonstrably false information to State officials, according to Kavalec’s own notes.
All of that, FBI intelligence experts tell me, would be enough to question Steele’s credibility and reliability as an informant and to push a “pause” button on the FISA request.
But even absent checking with State, the very piece of Steele intelligence that Kavalec transmitted to FBI — the alleged back-door computer channel at Alfa Bank — already was deemed unreliable by the bureau.
The FBI received similar information in summer of 2016 from the Democratic Party’s and Clinton campaign’s lawyer, who forwarded it to then-FBI chief counsel James Baker.
I first heard about the allegation in late September 2016 and, by the first week of October, I reached multiple U.S. officials — including one inside the FBI — who told me the allegation had been investigated and the pings were determined to be “innocuous” contacts, most likely related to errant spam emails. Alfa Bank hired two experts who reached similar conclusions.
Every time the story surfaced over the next two years, I got the same answer from U.S. officials. And I wasn’t alone. The New York Times published a similar answer before the 2016 election: “The F.B.I. ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts,” it reported on Oct. 31, 2016.
In the end, Kavalec’s email to the bureau about Steele was a perfect test of Steele’s credibility and of the FBI’s willingness to question the credibility of its star informant in one of the most controversial FISA applications in American history.
Both failed. Steele passed along easily debunked intelligence, and the FBI failed to ask hard questions about his credibility or to alert FISA judges to the concerns that Steele’s behavior raised before the warrant was secured.
In other words, before the FBI and its then-director, James Comey, swore to the FISA court on Oct. 21, 2016, that they had verified the FISA warrant application and deemed Steele a credible informant with no known derogatory information, the government knew:
- Steele had told senior Justice official Bruce Ohr he was “desperate” to defeat Trump and was working in some capacity for the Clinton campaign;
- he leaked his dossier to the news media;
- he offered demonstrably false intelligence, such as the Alfa pings and an allegation given to Kavalec that Russian hackers were being paid by a nonexistent Russian Consulate in Miami.
Far worse revelations for the FBI likely lie ahead.
Most Americans now support an investigation into whether the FBI abused FISA to smear Trump.
President Trump is preparing to declassify the first tranche of documents in the Russia case, and they are expected to show the FBI possessed — but did not alert the court to — damning evidence of the Trump campaign’s innocence, including recorded conversations of targeted campaign aides denying wrongdoing.
But even before that happens, the State Department email that was kept from the American public and Congress for 2 1/2 years should be appreciated for what it signifies: It was a missed opportunity to assess Steele’s research for what it was — political fool’s gold.
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.