Earlier this week, House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes told people that he would shift his focus in the handling of the Russia-collusion probe from the FBI to the State Department. The issue at hand, Byron York reported last month, was a possible conduit between Christopher Steele and his work on the Donald Trump dossier and other Obama administration officials outside of normal counterintelligence channels:
But it appears some investigators are looking beyond the 35 pages of reports done by Steele for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm working for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, that were published in January 2017 by BuzzFeed. They’re looking into whether Steele did other reports about Trump, perhaps similar but not identical to what was in the dossier published by BuzzFeed. And they are looking into whether those reports made their way to the State Department. They’re also seeking to learn what individual State Department officials did in relation to Steele, and whether there were any contacts between the State Department and the FBI or Justice Department concerning the anti-Trump material.
It’s not clear whether State Department activity related to Steele’s Russia project took place in the months leading up to the 2016 election, during the transition, or both.
The Atlantic reported Monday that the focus would fall on one official in particular:
Devin Nunes has a new target: Jonathan Winer, the Obama State Department’s special envoy to Libya, and longtime Senate aide to John Kerry. Winer received a memorandum written by political activist Cody Shearer and passed it along to Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence official who had compiled his own dossier on Donald Trump.
Actually, there’s one more figure in this conduit that the Atlantic mentions later: Sidney Blumenthal. The longtime Clintonland fixer, and supplier of questionably acquired intelligence to Hillary Clinton before the attack on the Benghazi, helped move the Shearer memo around to Winer. Winer then forwarded it to Steele, who then passed it back to the FBI, where Blumenthal’s efforts became part of their counterintelligence probe, likely without the bureau knowing its full provenance.
If that sounds mighty convenient for Hillary Clinton, Winer wants everyone to know that he saw this as doing his job. Winer writes an amazing pre-emptive column in the Washington Post attempting to head off any suspicion before it gathers too much steam. Winer had been in contact with Steele during the summer of 2016 and had been passing notes made from his reports to Victoria Nuland, a career State official whose responsibilities at that time were Europe and Asia, which made her a natural fit for dealing with Russia issues. (Nuland had also been the spokesperson for State during Hillary Clinton’s tenure there.) Nuland told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday that she simply passed the information to the FBI, as it was “not in our purview” at State.
We’ll get back to that in a moment. But that’s when Blumenthal and Cody Shearer enter the picture:
In late September, I spoke with an old friend, Sidney Blumenthal, whom I met 30 years ago when I was investigating the Iran-contra affair for then-Sen. Kerry and Blumenthal was a reporter at The Post. At the time, Russian hacking was at the front and center in the 2016 presidential campaign. The emails of Blumenthal, who had a long association with Bill and Hillary Clinton, had been hacked in 2013 through a Russian server.
While talking about that hacking, Blumenthal and I discussed Steele’s reports. He showed me notes gathered by a journalist I did not know, Cody Shearer, that alleged the Russians had compromising information on Trump of a sexual and financial nature. …
On my own, I shared a copy of these notes with Steele, to ask for his professional reaction. He told me it was potentially “collateral” information. I asked him what that meant. He said that it was similar but separate from the information he had gathered from his sources. I agreed to let him keep a copy of the Shearer notes.
Given that I had not worked with Shearer and knew that he was not a professional intelligence officer, I did not mention or share his notes with anyone at the State Department. I did not expect them to be shared with anyone in the U.S. government.
This raises all sorts of questions, not least of which is why the FBI didn’t react to the knowledge that Steele was leaking information to State. They didn’t find out about Steele’s leaks to the media until months later, but shouldn’t that kind of back-channel chatter have alerted them to a potential security risk in their probe? Wouldn’t they have at least questioned Steele as to why he was approaching State with this information in the middle of their intelligence operation? Perhaps this has been asked and answered in closed sessions in Congress, but it puts the potential credibility questions about Steele ahead of the first FISA warrant in October.
Second: what was Winer doing in bypassing State’s own functions and acting as a conduit for intel transmission to a foreign agent, or at the very least a former foreign agent? The proper way to deal with this situation would have been to refer it again to Nuland or to contact the FBI directly. That’s especially true given that Winer apparently knew the State Department was already aware of the Steele efforts, and that they likely would have contacted the FBI about them.
Furthermore, while Blumenthal may have been Winer’s longtime friend, he was also a highly controversial figure involved other major investigations — the FBI’s probe of Hillary Clinton e-mails and the Congressional review of the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi. His longtime patrons were busy staging a presidential campaign against Trump at the same time he was using Winer to get Shearer’s notes to the FBI via Steele. And Winer didn’t think that was unusual enough to alert the FBI or State Department about Blumenthal’s involvement in a potential counterintelligence investigation?
Perhaps Winer is simply that naive and gullible. If so, Nunes’ scrutiny shouldn’t bother him. But if this is the story Winer tells, don’t expect there to be a lot of buyers at the HPSCI, or anywhere else.