- House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes is preparing to release the second memo in his investigation into alleged corruption at the FBI and Department of Justice.
- The memo will focus on purported abuses at the State Department and a second Trump-Russia dossier, authored by an operative with longtime ties to the Clintons, that former British spy Christopher Steele gave to the FBI.
- Republicans are already going on the offensive about the partisan production of the dossier, but former intelligence officials say it is the FBI’s responsibility to examine its claims.
As Democrats and Republicans continue brawling over the Russia probe, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes is gearing up to release a second memo as part of his investigation into perceived bias within the FBI and Department of Justice.
Nunes’s much-hyped first memo, which was declassified last week, purports to show the FBI and DOJ abusing their surveillance authority by omitting “material and relevant” facts when submitting an application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant against Carter Page, a former adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Much of the Republican document also questioned the FBI’s decision to use the Steele dossier – an explosive collection of memos by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleging collusion between Trump and Russia – as a “roadmap” in the Russia investigation.
Nunes’s next memo, meanwhile, will focus on alleged abuses at the Department of State and a second Trump-Russia dossier compiled by Cody Shearer, a controversial political activist with close ties to the Clinton family, according to a Republican familiar with the details.
The existence of the second dossier was reported by The Guardian last week. Shearer gave the dossier to Obama State Department official Jonathan Winer, who passed it along to Steele, according to The Atlantic. Steele gave the document to the FBI in October 2016 and said some of its findings also aligned with information he had obtained from his own sources.
Republicans go on the offensive
The second dossier and its sourcing have already begun fuelling Republican accusations of anti-Trump bias in the FBI and the DOJ, as well as in the Russia investigation.
“There was no basis for an investigation into collusion between Trump-Russia,” said Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative group Judicial Watch. “The only basis was a smear job created by Clinton operatives. … There was even another Clinton dossier given to the FBI by Cody Shearer – a Clinton operative.”
Axios reported, citing a Republican committee source, that “there are several areas of concern where federal agencies used government resources to try to create a narrative and influence the election. Some have suggested coordination with Hillary Clinton operatives [Sidney] Blumenthal and [Cody] Shearer to back up the false narrative.”
Blumenthal is a journalist, political aide, and longtime ally of the Clintons. His email correspondence with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state was central to congressional investigations into the 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. There is no evidence that he was involved with the second dossier’s creation and distribution.
Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, meanwhile, one of Trump’s closest allies outside the White House, touted a story on his website inaccurately alleging that Steele was involved in the second dossier’s creation.
And Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, influential members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter Monday, “It is troubling enough that the Clinton Campaign funded Mr. Steele’s work, but that these Clinton associates were contemporaneously feeding Mr. Steele allegations raises additional concerns about his credibility.”
‘Cops and lawyers take tips where they can get them’
Former intelligence officials said that while the second dossier should be approached with more caution, the FBI has a responsibility to investigate its claims.
“If someone like Steele, who has that kind of credibility, gives the FBI that information, they should give it attention,” said Rick Smith, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who spent 25 years at the bureau. If the information in question is “unverifiable nonsense,” he added, “then I have a hard time establishing the overall document as being credible. On the other hand, if I’m seeing stuff I can check out and verify, I’m going to listen to it.”
“I don’t think it’s odd at all that the FBI is looking at this second dossier,” said Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and National Security Agency. “Cops and lawyers take tips where they get them. Of course, that’s only the beginning of the process. You take the information you get, don’t accept it at face value, do your research, and find out whether it coheres.”
Steele has taken center stage in recent weeks as Republicans raise questions about his role in the Russia probe and ramp up accusations of corruption in the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies.
The Nunes memo took aim at Steele multiple times, painting him as a politically biased source providing unreliable information about Trump’s ties to Russia. Steele’s purported lack of credibility as a source, the memo said, should have been a red flag for the FBI before it used parts of the Steele dossier to support the FISA application on Page in 2016.
On Tuesday, Grassley released a declassified version of a January letter in which he and Graham referred Steele to the Department of Justice for criminal charges. In the letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, the lawmakers asked the DOJ to investigate whether Steele made false statements to the FBI about his contacts with members of the media.
Legal experts said the criminal referral largely appeared to be a political stunt meant to discredit Steele as opposed to the information he provided. And former intelligence officials said the FBI’s decision to continue relying upon Steele’s information even after cutting him off as a source when it learned of his media contacts was indicative of how seriously they took the intelligence he provided.
“It is incumbent on intelligence officials to look hard at anything that might be true,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years as a CIA intelligence operative.
Of the Shearer dossier, he said, “if it tracked with other information, we would take it seriously. If a trusted contact like Mr. Steele passed it on and noted that it tracked with information that he had uncovered, we would accept it and look into it.”
Deitz, the former NSA and CIA lawyer, said investigators were also likely taking the appropriate precautions when looking into information in the Shearer memo that appears to align with what Steele uncovered.
“Occasionally, you’ll see three or four pieces of information that appear to correlate until you find out that they all have the same source,” he said. “So the information could be the same, but if it came from a dubious source, that would be an issue.”
But Frank Montoya, a retired FBI agent, said that if Steele himself turned the Shearer memo over to the FBI, it’s possible that it wasn’t “circular reporting,” which is information recycled from the same original source.
“The primary question” for each dossier “is straightforward,” Montoya said. “Can information contained in each report be corroborated? Or, just as importantly, can it corroborate other information I’ve collected?”
“The twists and turns, the duplicity, the false trails, the deception, all of it is enough to drive one batty,” he added. “But the truth is out there, too.”
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