New evidence shows why Steele, the Ohrs and TSA workers never should have become DOJ sources
One of the inevitable outcomes of the Russia case will be that the Department of Justice (DOJ) almost certainly will need internal reforms.
The first reform is the most obvious, given the unraveling of the Russia collusion narrative: a new set of rules governing when the FBI can investigate or spy on a First Amendment-protected political campaign during an election.
The FBI never should have been allowed to sustain a counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign based on hearsay from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, who helped to arrange a $25 million Australian government donation to the Clinton Foundation, and on a “minimally” verified dossier written by British spy Christopher Steele, who was working on the Hillary Clinton opposition-research team.
The second reform may be less visible but becomes painfully obvious, thanks to a series of internal DOJ investigative memos released this month that expose glaring issues with the handling, vetting and weighting of “confidential human sources.” That’s a fancy term for people — sometimes called “snitches” or informants, in street vernacular — who secretly provide evidence to law enforcement.
Some examples of the DOJ’s problems with informers fall outside the Russia case but mirror the same issues unmasked in the now-debunked probe of Trump.
Take, for example, the DOJ inspector general’s finding this month that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was paying other government officials at the Homeland Security Department’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to work as informants.
The IG spared few words in decrying the idiocy of allowing government security officers collecting a federal salary to double-dip into taxpayers’ money by receiving informant pay to report criminal activity they were required by their jobs to disclose.
Two agents and one supervisor “violated the DEA Confidential Source policy” by paying three TSA workers as informants, the report concluded. And one agent wrongly served as handler for a TSA informant with whom he was involved in a “personal relationship,” investigators found, exposing a problem dating to 2013.
“By establishing the TSA employees as paid Limited Use Confidential Sources, the DEA agreed to pay for information that the TSA employees were already obligated to provide to law enforcement,” the IG concluded.
In other words, there should be a bright line: Government agents should stick to their jobs and leave the informing to private citizens.
That line similarly was breached in the minds of many when Bruce Ohr, then the DOJ’s assistant deputy attorney general, began collecting anti-Trump information on July 30, 2016, from former MI6 agent Steele and pushing it on the top levels of the DOJ and the FBI.
At the time, Ohr knew his wife, Nellie, and Steele worked for the Fusion GPS research firm on the same project to dig up Russia dirt on Trump, to help the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) win the 2016 election. Furthermore, Ohr told the FBI he knew Steele was a foreigner “desperate” to stop a Trump presidency, FBI memos show.
With his seniority inside DOJ, Ohr quickly got Steele’s information to the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, and three top DOJ supervisors, despite the red flags.
Before long, Steele was working as a confidential informant for the bureau, and his dossier was used to secure a surveillance warrant targeting the Trump campaign weeks before Election Day.
When Steele got fired Nov. 1, 2016, by the FBI for leaking to the media, Ohr became a conduit for the bureau to keep getting information from Steele for months. Ohr met at least 12 times in late 2016 and 2017 with FBI agents to provide new intel from the British spy. In other words, Ohr transitioned from being a DOJ supervisor to a backdoor source for the FBI to receive information from a terminated source.
And he didn’t stop there.
Records released this week, thanks to litigation by the conservative group Judicial Watch, show the senior DOJ official took at least two research files from his wife and her Fusion GPS work and provided them to FBI agents investigating Trump. One alleged that unverified ties existed between the Trump organization and Russian mobsters; the other provided a timeline alleging wrongdoing by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Nellie Ohr testified to Congress that some of her anti-Trump information came from foreign officials in Ukraine, including a parliamentary member highly critical of Manafort.
Examination of the Nellie Ohr documents given to the FBI shows some of her source material also came from former Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko and a lawsuit she filed against Manafort.
Why is that significant? Tymoshenko and Hillary Clinton had a simpatico relationship after the former secretary of State went out of her way in January 2013 to advocate for Tymoshenko’s release from prison on corruption charges.
So, Bruce Ohr became a conduit of information not only for intelligence from Clinton’s British opposition-researcher but also from his wife’s curation of evidence from a Clinton foreign ally and Manafort enemy inside Ukraine. Talk about foreign influence in a U.S. election!
To Ohr’s credit, he disclosed his potential conflict of interest involving his wife to DOJ officials. To DOJ’s discredit, he was allowed to act as a source for both his wife and Steele anyway.
Ohr also didn’t get compensated as a paid informant, like the TSA workers. But documents show a curious thing happened during the time he began peddling the anti-Trump intelligence from his wife and Steele: His annual performance bonus doubled from about $14,000 in November 2015 to $28,000 in November 2016.
The blurred line between government official and informer/source didn’t stop with Ohr. Former FBI General Counsel James Baker also admitted he took dirt on Trump from DNC lawyer Michael Sussmann in summer 2016 and gave it to the agents investigating the Trump campaign.
The ultimate consequence — some might argue folly — of all these blurred lines is most easily exposed in an often overlooked document from the Russia probe.
I’ve written that the FBI kept a spreadsheet showing almost all of what Steele provided agents and Ohr on Russia-Trump dirt turned out to be unverified, disproven or nothing more than internet rumors. But when the FBI closed its paperwork on Steele in 2018, a professional intelligence analyst concluded in his human source validation report that the bureau assessed it had only “medium confidence” in Steele and that his intelligence could only be “minimally” verified.
In other words, his intelligence wasn’t very good. And yet, America spent nearly three years in turmoil only to learn that Steele’s Trump-Russia allegations — paid by Clinton and propagated by Ohr — were not true.
The tales of Bruce and Nellie Ohr, Christopher Steele, Yulia Tymoshenko, and those DEA and TSA agents raise a stark warning: The lines between government officials and informants, unverified political dirt and real intelligence, personal interest and law enforcement, became too blurred for the Justice Department’s own good.
That’s a problem sorely in need of fixing.
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.