- Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, is the author of the Trump-Russia dossier.
- Recently published Republican memos attempt to discredit Steele’s credibility and the dossier that he produced.
- Republicans say the dossier played a central role in justifying surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser during and after the 2016 election.
The public knew little about Christopher Steele before the 2016 US election. Most people had no idea who he was.
But now the former British intelligence officer is perhaps the biggest – and most divisive – name in Washington.
Steele is the author of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier, also known as the Steele dossier, a collection of memos he compiled before the 2016 presidential election that contains information alleging Russia has compromising information on President Donald Trump, among other allegations.
As far as we know, the US intelligence community has not verified or corroborated any of the dossier’s allegations.
But the FBI has attested to Steele’s reliability based on his previous reporting of foreign intelligence to the US government as a former investigator, according to a declassified version of a letter Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley and committee member Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, wrote in January.
That letter, along with the controversial memo that President Donald Trump cleared for release on February 2, is at the heart of a heated back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans over Steele’s credibility and his role in fuelling the early stages of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spearheaded the memo. Democrats are trying to release a rebuttal memo pointing out inaccuracies and mischaracterizations they say the Nunes memo contains, but Trump denied its declassification on Friday.
Here’s what lawmakers are saying about Steele:
The Nunes memo
The central claim in the Nunes memo is that investigators from the DOJ and FBI improperly obtained a surveillance warrant for Carter Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
To obtain a surveillance warrant, the FBI and the DOJ had to submit an application explaining why a so-called FISA warrant was justified. The Steele dossier, according to the memo, was “an essential part” of that application.
The memo also claims:
- Officials at the FBI and the DOJ failed to disclose details about how the Steele dossier was compiled at the behest of Fusion GPS, a research firm hired by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. This omission taints the legitimacy of the FISA application, the memo suggests.
- The two organisations paid Steele over $US160,000 “to obtain derogatory information on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.”
- The FBI and the DOJ improperly used a Yahoo News article from September 2016 as corroborating material in their FISA application. The Yahoo article focused on how the FBI was looking into Carter Page’s trip to Moscow in July of that year. But the FISA application failed to note that Steele was used as a source for that information.
- Steele met with several other news outlets at the direction of Fusion GPS, thus violating his agreement with the FBI to keep information about his investigation confidential. Steele also lied to the FBI about his media contacts, and was subsequently terminated as a FBI source in October 2016.
- Steele told a DOJ official that he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected president.”
The Grassley-Graham letter
The Grassley-Graham letter elaborated on most of the claims made in the Nunes memo, providing a more detailed and thorough explanation of alleged abuses by the FBI and the DOJ when they applied for a FISA warrant.
The letter claims:
- The FISA application did not entirely withhold information about the origins of the Steele dossier, but its language was vague and still left out the fact that the Clinton campaign was behind the dossier’s funding.
- “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 letter said. The law firm referenced is Perkins Coie, which is connected to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
- Steele confirmed to to a British court that he met with reporters from Yahoo News, The Washington Post, CNN, and The New Yorker in September 2016 to discuss some of his findings, but he did not tell the FBI about these media contacts.
- By going public with his findings, Steele made it more likely that malicious actors could manipulate his investigation by feeding him false information to include in the dossier.
- The Steele dossier contained information sourced from Clinton allies and questionable Russian intelligence officials.
- “Mr. Steele’s apparent deception [about his encounters with the press] seems to have posed significant, material consequences on the FBI’s investigative decisions and representations to the court.” The FBI vouched for Steele’s credibility multiple times.
- Because of this deception, Grassley and Graham “are referring Christopher Steele to the Department of Justice for investigation of potential violation(s) of 18 U.S.C. § 1001,” which could lead to a criminal indictment.
The Democrats’ memo
Democrats dispute the way Republicans characterise Steele and the FBI’s actions in both the Nunes memo and the Grassley-Graham letter.
Led by ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have drafted a memo of their own countering Republicans’ claims of corruption at the FBI and the DOJ.
Trump denied its release on Friday, and Schiff is working on making redactions to the memo.
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