Research for the Christopher Steele dossier that roiled President Trump and the White House for two years happened in Moscow bars, newly disclosed FBI notes show.
The notes are contained in an FBI Form 302 from an interview conducted by an agent and intelligence analyst with Mr. Steele in London in September 2017. The session included talk of Mr. Steele’s “p-sub” — the dossier’s primary sub-source, Russia-born U.S. resident Igor Danchenko.
Based in the U.S., Mr. Danchenko collected secondhand information in Moscow from friends and drinking buddies and tossed it to Mr. Steele during the 2016 election.
Paid with money from the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence agent, incorporated Mr. Danchenko’s gossip as the 35-page dossier’s main narrative of a dozen or so felony allegations.
Mr. Steele described to the FBI the collection method: “With respect to the election-related material, it didn’t take much to collect early-on because the whole thing was an ‘open secret’ in Moscow; people would start talking in bars and p-sub could easily elicit; later, as time went on, sources started shutting down and it became harder to get information.”
Mr. Steele characterized Mr. Trump as his “main opponent.”
Among Mr. Danchenko’s since-discredited source-network gems: Trump lawyer Michael Cohen secretly traveled to Prague to organize a computer hacking cover-up and candidate Trump oversaw a far-reaching election conspiracy with the Kremlin.
The heavily redacted declassified FBI notes, dated Oct. 4, 2017, were released by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican. The two senators have been investigating how the FBI conducted a nearly three-year probe into the campaign, transition and presidency of Mr. Trump. No Trump-Russia election conspiracy was found.
Mr. Danchenko’s work became the planet around which the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane orbited. Agents won a federal judge’s approval for four wiretaps on Trump volunteer Carter Page and used dossier allegations to pursue other campaign allies. In the end, lead agent Peter Strzok called the dossier “inaccurate and disinformation” that had sent him on “wild-goose chases,” he told The Atlantic.
In the FBI notes, Mr. Steele and an Orbis Business Intelligence colleague conceded that “p-sub reporting, we believe there is a mixture of truth and falsehood.”
They also misstated the quality of his information as firsthand: “We believe [redacted] p-sub has a good view into these things and has reported on things from being ‘in the actual room at the time.’”
The FBI knew at the time that was wrong. Agents had discovered Mr. Danchenko’s identity, no thanks to Mr. Steele, and interviewed him three times in early 2017 under the promise of immunity. Those interviews in January, March and May prompted the FBI agent — then assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller — to seek the September session with Mr. Steele to compare what Mr. Danchenko had said with what Mr. Steele would say.
Mr. Danchenko described to the FBI how he had talked to contacts with secondhand and thirdhand information supposedly gleaned from Kremlin insiders. Looking back, he told the FBI, his sources were not worth “a grain of salt,” according to a December 2019 report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.
Mr. Steele described Mr. Danchenko’s “behavior is that of someone who is scared Not, in his opinion, exhibiting signs/behavior of someone who is under control.”
The FBI has never disclosed Mr. Danchenko’s identity. After Republicans posted heavily censored notes on the bureau’s first interview with him, social media sleuths collected enough tidbits to conclude it was Mr. Danchenko, a former Brookings Institution researcher. His lawyer confirmed that to The New York Times.
The FBI asked Mr. Steele about Mr. Danchenko’s “tradecraft [in] collecting information for you?”
Mr. Steele answered that he “takes very few written notes is very thorough when it comes to prepari [sic] to be debriefe [sic] takes some time before being debriefed to ge [sic] thoughts and recollections together has a very good memory.”
On the issue of archiving research, the FBI notes say, “CS [Christopher Steele] said they destroyed materials for legal reasons, working from memory on some of this.”
Mr. Steele said he provided dossier material to the late Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, because the FBI had shut him out after he leaked his bogus findings to Mother Jones magazine. In December 2016, McCain associate David J. Kramer spread the dossier information to journalists and government officials all over Washington. A BuzzFeed reporter photographed each page, and the news website published it on Jan. 10, 2017.
“With the breakdown that the interview then caused with the FBI, they had no way of getting this information into the hands of people that they believed needed it,” the October 2017 FBI notes say. “After that, that’s when they decided to go the McCain/Kramer route.”
Republican-released FBI documents show bureau headquarters received dossier pieces from Mr. Steele; Mother Jones reporter David Corn; Glenn Simpson, co-founder of opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which handled Mr. Steele; Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, Mr. Simpson’s messenger; the McCain copy of the dossier, which he hand-delivered to then-FBI Director James B. Comey; and Kathleen A. Kavalec, a State Department official with whom Mr. Steele had met.
One agent was in a rush to find dossier reports No. 86 and 113: “Can you please help me out this morning and get me copies of the three ne reports (86, 113, and the intel snippet),” counterintelligence agent Jonathan Moffa said in an email to a colleague. “Electronic on email is fine. I also need to see any of the ne that came in. Nobody seems to know where they are and I assume that means they ended up with you guys (hopefully). Any ideas who might have them? Thanks.”
The Horowitz report said the Danchenko debriefing “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting.”
The inspector general wrote that, after talking to him and then Mr. Steele in September 2017, “the FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at email@example.com.
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