- Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley released a declassified version of a January letter in which he and committee member Lindsey Graham referred Trump-Russia dossier author Christopher Steele to the Department of Justice for criminal charges.
- The letter appears to undercut two key assertions made in a bombshell memo released by the House Intelligence Committee last week, which purports to show the DOJ and FBI abusing their surveillance authority to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser.
- Former intelligence officials and legal experts also said the letter seems like a political stunt meant to discredit Steele, rather than the information contained in the dossier.
The Senate Judiciary Committee entered the heated memo wars on Capitol Hill Tuesday night, when committee chairman Chuck Grassley released a declassified version of a criminal referral he and fellow committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in early January.
In the letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, Grassley and Graham asked the DOJ to investigate whether former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele made false statements to the FBI “about the distribution of claims” in a dossier he compiled alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Grassley and Graham wrote: “Attached please find a classified memorandum related to certain communications between Christopher Steele and multiple US news outlets regarding the so-called ‘Trump dossier’ that Mr. Steele compiled on behalf of Fusion GPS for the Clinton Campaign and the Democratic National Committee and also provided to the FBI.”
The senators continued: “Based on the information contained therein, we are respectfully referring Mr. Steele to you for investigation of potential violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, for statements the Committee has reason to believe Mr. Steele made regarding his distribution of information contained in the dossier.”
The declassified version of the letter was released following days of back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans over the explosive claims made in a separate memo released by the House Intelligence Committee last week.
That memo, authored by the committee chairman Devin Nunes and his staff, purports to show surveillance abuses by the FBI and DOJ when they applied for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant in October 2016 to monitor Carter Page, a former adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign. Page had left the campaign by the time the DOJ and FBI applied for the warrant.
The Nunes memo also claims that:
- The FBI and DOJ did not inform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that the dossier was politically motivated.
- The FBI used a September 2016 Yahoo News article to corroborate claims from the Steele dossier, even though Steele himself was the source of the article.
While the Grassley-Graham letter confirms parts of the Nunes memo, it appears to undermine the aforementioned claims, both of which were key to Nunes’ conclusion that the FBI and DOJ acted improperly when they sought the Page warrant.
An apparent contradiction
Of the agencies’ inclusion of the dossier’s political funding in the FISA application, the Grassley-Graham letter says: “The FBI discussed the reliability of this unverified information provided by Mr. Steele in footnotes 8 and 18 of the FISA warrant application.”
“First, the FBI noted to a vaguely limited extent the political origins of the dossier. In footnote 8 the FBI stated that the dossier information was compiled pursuant to the direction of a law firm who had hired an ‘identified U.S. person’ – now known as Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS – [redacted].”
The revelation confirms earlier reports and lawmakers’ statements which said the bureau did disclose the dossier’s political origins when applying for the warrant. But it did not specify that the document was financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, a point that both memos highlighted.
Though Trump and his allies have latched onto the revelation, a DOJ official told The Washington Post last week that the agency made “ample disclosure of relevant, material facts” to the FISC which revealed “the research was being paid for by a political entity.”
The Grassley-Graham letter also appears to contradict the Nunes memo’s claim that the FBI used investigative reporter Michael Isikoff’s Yahoo News article to corroborate Steele’s dossier when applying for the Page warrant.
The Nunes memo referenced the article, published on September 23, 2016, which focused primarily on Page’s trip to Moscow in July 2016 and his contacts with Russian officials while there. “The article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News,” said the memo.
But the Grassley-Graham letter indicates that the FBI did not, in fact, include the article in its application as a way to corroborate the Steele dossier’s findings.
Quoting the FBI’s FISA application, the letter said: “Given that the information contained in the September 23rd news article generally matches the information about Page that [Steele] discovered doing his/her research, [redacted]. The FBI does not believe that [Steele] directly provided this information to the press.”
In other words, it appears the FBI told the FISC that Steele’s information had reached Yahoo News through a source other than Steele himself, and that the article was repeating findings that had come from the same original source. The statement therefore seems to indicate that the FBI did not believe the article was an independent corroboration of Steele’s intelligence.
Former NSA general counsel Robert Deitz said Wednesday that the FISA application’s reference to the Yahoo News article was likely meant to demonstrate that by the time the Page warrant was being sought, the investigation’s existence had become public knowledge, thus raising the risk that subjects of scrutiny – like Page – could attempt to conceal or destroy relevant evidence.
Steele takes center stage – again
The FBI’s belief that Steele had not communicated with Yahoo News, however, turned out to be untrue. Steele confirmed, according to British court filings, that he met with reporters from Yahoo News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The New Yorker in September 2016 to discuss some of his findings.
The bureau terminated its relationship with Steele after it learned he had spoken to members of the media in October 2016, according to the FBI’s FISA renewal application in January 2017 that was cited by the Grassley-Graham letter.
“The FBI relayed that Steele had been bothered by the FBI’s notification to Congress in October 2016 about the reopening of the Clinton investigation,” the letter said. It then quoted the January 2017 FISA renewal application, saying, “As a result, ‘[Steele] independently and against the prior admonishment from the FBI to speak only with the FBI on this matter, released the reporting discussed herein [dossier allegations against Page] to an identified news organisation.'”
The letter continues: “However, the FBI continued to cite to Mr. Steele’s past work as evidence of his reliability, and stated that ‘the incident that led to the FBI suspending its relationship with [Mr. Steele] occurred after [Mr. Steele] provided’ the FBI” with the dossier.
But rather than prove Steele’s lack of credibility as a source, the FBI’s continued reliance on his dossier even after it cut Steele off was indicative of how seriously they took the information contained in the document, experts said.
“There’s nothing in these memos or letters that speaks to the claims of the dossier itself,” said one recently retired DOJ official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “This is attacking the source of the dossier, not the dossier itself, which is critical to understand.”
“Anyone outside the [intelligence community] who has read the dossier and pays attention to press reports has seen elements of this dossier being verified,” they added. “And that’s all the more true for those of us who have seen classified intelligence not made available to the public.”
“What has been made public is that the FBI stopped using Steele once they learned he reached out to the media,” said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer. “End of story.”
The Post reported on Tuesday, citing friends of Steele, that the former spy did not talk to the press for politically-motivated reasons, but to sound the alarm on what he had uncovered and the belief that the US intelligence community was not taking appropriate steps to address his findings.
‘A person’s evaluation of the facts should not be contingent upon who they voted for’
The Grassley-Graham letter went on to note that the discrepancy between Steele’s actions and what the FBI told the FISC indicated that he had lied to the bureau about his media contacts and should therefore be investigated, because “lying to the FBI is a crime.”
But legal experts threw cold water on that assertion, pointing out that there is no evidence that Steele lied about his media contacts while giving a formal interview to the FBI.
“A referral that offered evidence of lying to Congress would be more likely to give the FBI something new and would be more likely to carry some weight,” William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department, told Business Insider in an earlier interview.
“If they are giving the FBI information it already has that suggests Steele lied to the FBI, the referral has little import. The bottom line is that the referral only matters to the extent it gives the FBI relevant evidence or otherwise unknown and credible allegations,” he said.
“A witness not mentioning that he spoke to a media outlet is not the basis for a criminal case,” Cramer said. “These referrals seem more political in nature than real concern for law enforcement.”
Experts also underscored the distinction between a witness’ personal biases and the veracity of the information they provide.
The FBI has already corroborated parts of the Steele dossier with intelligence collected as it investigates Russia’s election interference, and Cramer said that while a judge should factor in a witness’s possible biases when considering a warrant, “you should not quickly discount what is being told to the FBI simply because of who may have hired the source.”
He added that it is “absolutely relevant to consider, but a person’s evaluation of the facts should not be contingent upon who they voted for.”
Here’s the declassified Grassley-Graham letter:
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