DOJ and FBI gave cover to Steele dossier source accused of lying

The Justice Department and the FBI continued defending their use of information from Christopher Steele’s main source, Igor Danchenko, even after interviews with the bureau during which special counsel John Durham says the Russian lied repeatedly. 

Danchenko, a U.S.-based and Russian-born researcher, was charged “with five counts of making false statements to the FBI” that Durham claims he made about the information he provided to Steele for the dossier. The Durham indictment stated Danchenko lied to the FBI five times in 2017. He pleaded not guilty on Wednesday.

The efforts by the DOJ and the FBI to defend the credibility of Steele’s dossier and his source were notable in 2018, the year after Danchenko allegedly lied to the bureau, and in the midst of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. 

Then-Assistant Attorney General John Demers told Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Rosemary Collyer in a July 2018 letter that Danchenko had been “truthful and cooperative” with the FBI. The DOJ official also defended the flawed FISA applications against Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

Demers told the FISA court: “The Government submits that the applications, read in light go this additional information, contain sufficient predication for the Court to have found probable cause that the target was an agent of a foreign power.”

The DOJ knew Trump campaign associate George Papadopoulos repeatedly denied any Russia collusion in 2016 conversations with FBI confidential source Stefan Halper, denials not relayed to the FISA court. 

“Even considering the additional information regarding Papadopoulos’ conversations with Source #2 [Halper] and others, and regarding Source #1 [Steele], the applications contained sufficient predication for the Court to have found probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of the Government of Russia,” Demers told the FISA court. “The FBI has reviewed this letter and confirmed its factual accuracy.” 

DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s December 2019 report undermined the dossier’s claims, and he criticized the DOJ and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the FISA warrants against Page and for the bureau’s “central and essential” reliance on Steele’s dossier. 

Horowitz said FBI interviews with Danchenko “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting” and cast doubt on some of its biggest claims. Documents show the FBI had previously investigated Danchenko as a possible “threat to national security” due to alleged connections with Russian intelligence. 

Collyer condemned the actions of the FBI as “antithetical to the heightened duty of candor” in the wake of the report. 

In another instance, the FBI’s “Draft Talking Points” for a Senate Intelligence Committee briefing dated February 2018 includes further defenses of Steele and Danchenko. 

The bureau pointed to interviews with Danchenko in January 2017, writing he “advised that several reports appeared to be derived from multiple sources, to include the information he provided to Steele as well as information that he had not collected,” and that Danchenko “did not cite any significant concerns with the way his reporting was characterized in the dossier.” 

FBI notes of a January 2017 interview with Danchenko showed he told the bureau he “did not know the origins” of some of Steele’s claims and “did not recall” other information that was in the dossier. He noted that much of what he passed along to Steele was “word of mouth and hearsay” and that some stemmed from a“conversation … with friends over beers,” while the most salacious allegations may have been made in “jest.” 

Horowitz concluded Danchenko “contradicted the allegations of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’ in” Steele’s dossier. 

The FBI’s talking points also said they learned Steele was relying on a main source in October 2016, and the bureau provided a response to how speaking with Danchenko affected the FBI’s confidence in the dossier. 

“At minimum, our discussions with [Danchenko] confirm that the dossier was not fabricated by Steele,” the FBI wrote. “Our discussions with [Danchenko] confirmed that he operates within high level academic and government circles, maintains trusted relationships with individuals who are capable of reporting on the material he collected for Steele, and that Steele and [Danchenko] utilized reasonably sound intelligence tradecraft.” 

The FBI also claimed to senators it had “successfully protected from public disclosure the overwhelming majority of the individuals who contributed source reporting to the Steele Dossier.” The alleged sources for Steele’s dossier have largely either been accused of lying, have denied being sources, or have otherwise backed away from the dossier. 

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, previous head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in August 2020 that the 2018 briefing demonstrated the FBI had misled the Senate about Danchenko and the dossier. 

Later that month, the South Carolina Republican revealed Bill Priestap, the FBI’s former head of counterintelligence, was the official he claims tried “whitewashing” the dossier to the Senate in 2018. Graham said he was turning the information over to Durham to investigate, calling it “potentially another crime.” 

Priestap, the leader of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, wrote to the CIA to describe Steele as “reliable” as the FBI pushed to include Steele’s allegations in the 2017 intelligence community assessment on Russian interference.

Nearly all of the signers of the Page FISA warrants — Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, FBI Director James Comey, and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — have now indicated under oath that they would not have signed off on the surveillance if they knew then what they know now.