GOP senators: FBI relied 'heavily' on Steele dossier for surveillance warrants

GOP senators: FBI relied 'heavily' on Steele dossier for surveillance warrants
© Greg Nash

The FBI relied “heavily” on a controversial dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to obtain a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign official and shielded from the surveillance court information about Steele’s political bias and credibility, according to a criminal referral authored by Senate Republicans.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — GOP lawmaker pushes back on Trump drug pricing plan | Pfizer to raise prices on 41 drugs next year | Grassley opts for Finance gavel McConnell: Criminal justice bill unlikely this year On The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal | Facebook reeling after damning NYT report MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOn The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal | Facebook reeling after damning NYT report Cotton opposes Trump-backed criminal justice bill Lawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief MORE (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, referred Steele to the Justice Department for a investigation in early January, alleging he may have lied to the FBI about his contacts with the media while he was a bureau source. 

The criminal referral says Steele may have “materially” misled the FBI about an aspect of his dossier. A subsequent paragraph, which seems likely to contain the substance of that allegation, is redacted in full.

The letter — which was released late Tuesday night with redactions — adds new details to the controversial memo released last week by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.

The referral echoes many of the claims in the House Intelligence Committee memo while also providing new details about what Republicans have described as surveillance abuses in the criminal investigation of potential coordination between members of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMia Love pulls ahead in Utah race as judge dismisses her lawsuit Trump administration denies exploring extradition of Erdoğan foe for Turkey Trump congratulates Kemp, says Abrams will have 'terrific political future' MORE's campaign and Russia.

In the referral, Grassley and Graham make the case that Steele was a political actor, funded by the Democrats, who lied to the FBI and abused his role as a bureau source by spreading information through the press.

And the pair are unsparing in their criticism of the FBI, claiming that the bureau was either willfully misleading in surveillance court applications or was simply snookered by Steele, whose contacts with the American press were revealed in a British court.

“It appears that either Mr. Steele lied to the FBI or the British court, or that the classified [FBI] documents reviewed by the committee contain materially false statements,” the criminal referral states.

The Grassley–Graham letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinAttorneys want Supreme Court to determine legality of Whitaker as acting AG Top Dems: DOJ position on Whitaker appointment 'fatally flawed' Judge upholds Mueller indictment against Russian troll farm MORE is based on classified documents provided by the FBI, as well as interviews with former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey invites House Republicans to hold public hearing after news of possible subpoena GOP chairman plans to subpoena Comey, Lynch to testify before next Congress Conway’s husband: I’d rather move to Australia than vote for Trump MORE, the Republicans said.

The senators also viewed the controversial applications submitted to a surveillance court to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser known to have ties to Russia.

They say that the "bulk" of the warrant applications relied on the so-called Steele dossier, a series of memos written by Steele that were funded in part by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTexas history curriculum to emphasize that slavery played 'central role' in Civil War Election Countdown: Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor's race | Latest on Florida recount | Booker, Harris head to campaign in Mississippi Senate runoff | Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority Texas education board approves restoring Hillary Clinton in history curriculum MORE’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). 

“The bulk of the application consists of allegations against Page that were disclosed to the FBI by Mr. Steele and are also outlined in the Steele dossier,” the referral states. “The application appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page.”

Democrats have dismissed a House Intelligence memo making similar claims, arguing that there was more than enough intelligence to justify spying on Page and that the court authorized the surveillance even after it had been informed that the Steele dossier was political in nature. They have compiled a memo, now being reviewed by the White House for public release, making that case.

But Grassley and Graham say a footnote in the warrant application revealing the “political” nature of the dossier was inadequate. The footnote doesn't mention Clinton, the DNC or Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm co-founded by Glenn Simpson that hired Steele, according to the referral.

“The FBI stated that the dossier information was compiled pursuant to the direction of a law firm who had hired an 'an identified U.S. Person' — now known as Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS,” the referral states.

“The application failed to disclose that the identities of Mr. Simpson’s ultimate clients were the Clinton campaign and the DNC.”

The GOP senators argue that the application for a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) omitted other pertinent information.

For instance, they wrote, it did not reveal that Bruce Ohr, a senior Justice Department official, was in close contact with the FBI about the contents of the dossier even as his wife worked on “the Russia project” for Fusion GPS.

Grassley and Graham assert that Ohr informed the FBI that Steele was “desperate” to see that Trump was not elected president, a claim was also made in the House Intelligence Committee memo. Grassley and Graham say the surveillance court was kept in the dark about Steele’s motives.

“None of the information provided by Ohr in his interviews with the FBI was included in the FISA renewal applications, despite its relevance to whether Steele had lied to the FBI about his contacts with the media as well as its broader relevance to his credibility and his stated political motive,” the referral states.

To obtain a FISA warrant on Page, the FBI had to show probable cause to believe he was acting as the agent of a foreign power.

At the heart of the criminal referral is the claim that Steele lied to the FBI about his contacts with the media.

Steele allegedly told the FBI that he only provided the dossier to the bureau and his benefactors at Fusion GPS. The FBI later cut ties with Steele after learning that he was also holding private briefings for select media organizations and using his status as a bureau source to bolster the claims he was making.

At issue is a Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo News story, authored by reporter Michael Isikoff, that claimed the FBI was investigating Page for traveling to Russia to meet with officials from the Kremlin during the campaign.

Isikoff has acknowledged that Steele was his source for the story and has expressed surprise that the FBI mentioned it in applications to spy on Page.

The FBI said in its applications and requests for renewal that it did not believe Steele was the source of the Isikoff story, according to the referral.

“The application attempts to explain away the inconsistency between Mr. Steele’s assertion to the FBI and the existence of the article, apparently to shield Mr. Steele’s credibility on which it still relied for the renewal request,” the criminal referral states. “The application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said: ‘The FBI does not believe that [Steele] directly provided this information to the press’.”

Grassley and Graham argue that the FBI put too much faith in Steele because of his past work and ignored red flags because it was desperate to continue spying on Page.

The senators acknowledge that the FBI told the surveillance court in January 2017 that the bureau had suspended Steele for “unauthorized disclosure of information to the press.” The FBI also informed the court that Steele had been “bothered” by the bureau’s decision to renew an investigation into Clinton shortly before Election Day.

“However, the FBI cited Steele’s past work as evidence of his reliability and said once again that it did not believe Steele directly gave info to Yahoo News that was published in the 9/23 article,” the referral states.

“Thus, the FISA applications are either materially false in claiming that Mr. Steele said he did not provide dossier information to the press prior to Oct. 2016 or Mr. Steele made materially false statement to the FBI when he claimed he only provided the dossier info to his business partner and the FBI.”

Graham and Grassley argue that the surveillance warrants were granted because Steele was portrayed as an air-tight source, even after the FBI should have had concerns about him.

“Indeed, the documents we have reviewed show that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Mr. Steele’s information and relying heavily on his credibility,” the referral says.

“There is substantial evidence suggesting that Mr. Steele materially misled the FBI about a key aspect of his dossier efforts, one which bears on his credibility.”