Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden
FBI's spreadsheet puts a stake through the heart of Steele's dossier
Some in the news media have tried in recent days to rekindle their long-lost love affair with former MI6 agent Christopher Steele and his now infamous dossier.
The main trigger was a lengthy interview in June with the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general, which some news outlets suggested meant U.S. officials have found Steele, the former Hillary Clinton-backed political muckraker, to be believable.
"Investigators ultimately found Steele's testimony credible and even surprising," Politico crowed. The Washington Post went even further, suggesting Steele's assistance to the inspector general might "undermine Trumpworld's alt-narrative" that the Russia-collusion investigation was flawed.
For sure, Steele may have valuable information to aid Justice's internal affairs probe into misconduct during the 2016 Russia election probe. His dossier alleging a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow ultimately was disproven, but not before his intelligence was used to secure a surveillance warrant targeting the Trump campaign in the final days of the 2016 election.
Investigators are trying to ascertain what the British intelligence operative told the FBI about his sources, his relation to the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign, his hatred for Donald Trump, his Election Day deadline to get his information public and his leaking to media outlets before agents used his dossier to justify a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to spy on ex-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
There is evidence Steele told the DOJ in July, and the State Department in October, about all of these flaws in his work, and that State officials even detected blatant inaccuracies in his intelligence. If so, all of that information should have been flagged by the FBI as potentially derogatory information weighing against Steele's use as a source for the FISA warrant.
But lest anyone be tempted to think Steele's 2016 dossier is about to be mysteriously revived as credible, consider this: Over months of work, FBI agents painstakingly researched every claim Steele made about Trump's possible collusion with Russia, and assembled their findings into a spreadsheet-like document.
The over-under isn't flattering to Steele.
Multiple sources familiar with the FBI spreadsheet tell me the vast majority of Steele's claims were deemed to be wrong, or could not be corroborated even with the most awesome tools available to the U.S. intelligence community. One source estimated the spreadsheet found upward of 90 percent of the dossier's claims to be either wrong, nonverifiable or open-source intelligence found with a Google search.
In other words, it was mostly useless.
"The spreadsheet was a sea of blanks, meaning most claims couldn't be corroborated, and those things that were found in classified intelligence suggested Steele's intelligence was partly or totally inaccurate on several claims," one source told me.
The FBI declined comment when asked about the spreadsheet.
The FBI's final assessment was driven by many findings contained in classified footnotes at the bottom of the spreadsheet. But it was also informed by an agent's interview, in early 2017, with a Russian that Steele claimed was one of his main providers of intelligence, according to my sources.
The FBI came to suspect that the Russian misled Steele, either intentionally or through exaggeration, the sources said.
The spreadsheet and a subsequent report by special prosecutor Robert Mueller show just how far off the seminal claims in the Steele dossier turned out to be.
For example, U.S. intelligence found no evidence that Carter Page, during a trip to Moscow in July 2016, secretly met with two associates of Vladimir Putin - Rosneft oil executive Igor Sechin and senior government official Igor Divyekin - as part of the effort to collude with the Trump campaign, as Steele reported.
Page did meet with a lower-level Rosneft official, and shook hands with a Russian deputy prime minister, the FBI found, but it was a far cry from the tale that Steele's dossier spun.
Likewise, Steele claimed that Sechin had offered Page a hefty finder's fee if he could get Trump to help lift sanctions on Moscow: "a 19 percent (privatized) stake in Rosneft in return."
That offer, worth billions of dollars, was never substantiated and was deemed by some in U.S. intelligence to be preposterous.
The inaccuracy of Steele's intelligence on Page is at the heart of the inspector general investigation specifically because the FBI represented to the FISA court that the intelligence on Page was verified and strong enough to support the FISA warrant. It was, in the end, not verified.
Another knockdown of the dossier occurred when U.S. intelligence determined former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was not in Prague in the summer of 2016 when Steele claimed he was meeting with Russians to coordinate a hijacking of the election, the sources said.
Steele's theory about who in the Trump campaign might be conspiring with Russia kept evolving from Page to Cohen to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. None of those theories checked out in the end, as the Mueller report showed.
Again, Steele's intelligence was wrong or unverifiable.
The salacious, headline-grabbing claim that Russians had incriminating sex tapes showing Trump engaged in depraved acts with prostitutes also met a factual dead end when the FBI interviewed the Georgian-American businessman who claimed to know about them. Giorgi Rtskhiladze told investigators "he was told the tapes were fake," according to a footnote in the Mueller report. Rtskhiladze's lawyer subsequently issued a letter taking issue with some of Mueller's characterizations.
Steele had some general things right, of course, including that the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails. Of course, there were public reports saying so when Steele reported this.
But even then, his dossier's theory of how the hackers worked, who paid them and how they communicated with Trump was determined in the FBI spreadsheet and subsequent Mueller investigation to be far from accurate.
Even State officials, who listened to Steele's theories in October 2016 - less than two weeks before his dossier was used to support the FISA request - instantly determined he was grossly wrong on some points.
Any effort to use Steele's belated cooperation with the inspector general's investigation to prop up the credibility of his 2016 anti-Trump dossier or the FBI's reliance on it for the FISA warrant is deeply misguided.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a key defender of Trump, said he talked with DOJ officials after the most recent stories surfaced about Steele and was told the reporting is wrong. "Based on my conversations with DOJ officials, recent reports which suggest Christopher Steele's dossier and allegations are somehow deemed credible by DOJ, are simply false and not based on any confirmation from sources with direct knowledge of ongoing investigations," Meadows told me.
The FBI's own spreadsheet was so conclusive that it prompted then-FBI Director James Comey (no fan of Trump, mind you) to dismiss the document as "salacious and unverified" and for lead FBI agent Peter Strzok to text, "There's no big there there." FBI lawyer Lisa Page testified that nine months into reviewing Steele's dossier they had not found evidence of the collusion that Steele alleged.
Two years later, Mueller came to the same conclusion: Steele's intelligence alleging a conspiracy was never verified.
The next time you hear a pundit suggesting Steele's dossier is credible or that the FBI's reliance on it as FISA evidence was justified, just picture all those blanks in that FBI spreadsheet.
They speak volumes as to what went wrong in the Russia investigation.
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.