Did FBI know Steele dossier was "inaccurate" before seeking FISA warrant?

Does a memo from a State Department official amount to a smoking gun for FBI malfeasance in its dealings with the FISA court? John Solomon makes the case at The Hill that the FBI had reason to believe that Christopher Steele’s dossier was at the least inaccurate before seeking a counterespionage surveillance warrant on Carter Page. Just how inaccurate might be at issue, however:


Newly unearthed memos show a high-ranking government official who met with Steele in October 2016 determined some of the Donald Trump dirt that Steele was simultaneously digging up for the FBI and for Hillary Clinton’s campaign was inaccurate, and likely leaked to the media.

The concerns were flagged in a typed memo and in handwritten notes taken by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec on Oct. 11, 2016.

Her observations were recorded exactly 10 days before the FBI used Steele and his infamous dossier to justify securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and the campaign’s contacts with Russia in search of a now debunked collusion theory.

In Solomon’s view, this shows that the FBI’s testimony to the FISA court is “fraying faster than a $5 souvenir T-shirt bought at a tourist trap.” Solomon, who has pursued the FISA angle aggressively for months, rests this argument on Kavalec’s somewhat skeptical observations after meeting with Steele personally and getting briefed on his intel. In the meeting, Steele regales Kavalec with tales of connections between Donald Trump and the Kremlin with Paul Manafort as the go-between.

Much of this ended up being shown as baseless in the Mueller report, which curiously avoided talking much about Steele or his “intelligence.” The only references to Steele’s dossier are in relation to reactions to it by Trump and the people around him, and media publication of its details. It very notably provides no substantial predicate for any of Mueller’s findings and plays no role in his conclusions on Russian interference in the election.


That’s in retrospect, however. Is it fair to impose retroactive judgment on the FBI for their concern over Steele’s input? Solomon points to a red flag Kavalec discovered in real time on Steele’s findings:

That looks pretty sloppy, especially for an intelligence expert. How tough would it have been for Steele to confirm the existence of the consulate that supposedly funded a major operation targeting an American election? Also, the hacking scandal broke in mid-June 2016, almost precisely in the center of Kalugin’s stay, but the hacking operation predated Kalugin’s entry into the US. The phishing attack that cracked open John Podesta’s e-mail took place in March 2016, before Kalugin’s arrival.

Some of that might not have been fully known to the FBI at the time, however, although the non-existence of a Russian consulate in Miami should have been. The hacking network was not “in the U.S” but in Russia, a point that the FBI probably should have known at that point.  As the indictment from Robert Mueller indicates, Unit 26165 was located in Moscow, not Miami or anywhere in the US:

9. Defendant VIKTOR BORISOVICH NETYKSHO (Нетыкшо Виктор Борисович) was the Russian military officer in command of Unit 26165, located at 20 Komsomolskiy Prospekt, Moscow, Russia. Unit 26165 had primary responsibility for hacking the DCCC and DNC, as well as the email accounts of individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign.

10. Defendant BORIS ALEKSEYEVICH ANTONOV (Антонов Борис Алексеевич) was a Major in the Russian military assigned to Unit 26165. ANTONOV oversaw a department within Unit 26165 dedicated to targeting military, political, governmental, and non-governmental organizations with spearphishing emails and other computer intrusion activity. ANTONOV held the title “Head of Department.” In or around 2016, ANTONOV supervised other co-conspirators who targeted the DCCC, DNC, and individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign.

11. Defendant DMITRIY SERGEYEVICH BADIN (Бадин Дмитрий Сергеевич) was a Russian military officer assigned to Unit 26165 who held the title “Assistant Head of Department.” In or around 2016, BADIN, along withANTONOV, supervised other co-conspirators who targeted the DCCC, DNC, and individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign.


The release of the documents went through Unit 74455, which was also located in Moscow:

18. Defendant ALEKSANDR VLADIMIROVICH OSADCHUK (Осадчук Александр Владимирович) was a Colonel in the Russian military and the commanding officer of Unit 74455. Unit 74455 was located at 22 Kirova Street, Khimki, Moscow, a building referred to within the GRU as the “Tower.” Unit 74455 assisted in the release of stolen documents through the DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas, the promotion of those releases, and the publication of anti-Clinton content on social media accounts operated by the GRU.

19. Defendant ALEKSEY ALEKSANDROVICH POTEMKIN (Потемкин Алексей Александрович) was an officer in the Russian military assigned to Unit 74455. POTEMKIN was a supervisor in a department within Unit 74455 responsible for the administration of computer infrastructure used in cyber operations. Infrastructure and social media accounts administered by POTEMKIN’s department were used, among other things, to assist in the release of stolen documents through the DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas.

If there wasn’t a hacking network in the US, then there would be no reason to run a paymaster operation out of a Russian consulate, in Miami or anywhere else. How much of that was known by the FBI at the time of Kavalec’s memo will be interesting to discover. At any rate, Solomon argues, the Russian-consulate error should have been enough to discount Steele’s dossier, at least in terms of getting a FISA warrant:


It is important to note that the FBI swore on Oct. 21, 2016, to the FISA judges that Steele’s “reporting has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings” and the FBI has determined him to be “reliable” and was “unaware of any derogatory information pertaining” to their informant, who simultaneously worked for Fusion GPS, the firm paid by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton campaign to find Russian dirt on Trump.

That’s a pretty remarkable declaration in Footnote 5 on Page 15 of the FISA application, since Kavalec apparently needed just a single encounter with Steele at State to find one of his key claims about Trump-Russia collusion was blatantly false.

Solomon calls it a “lie” later too, but there wouldn’t be much point in lying about something so easily checked. It was blatantly wrong, and extremely sloppy on Steele’s part for not checking basic facts. Did that negate all of the other information in the dossier? Intelligence work is not so cut-and-dried. The trick is to find the truth in an avalanche of speculation and rumor. In October 2016, the FBI might still have worried that Steele was casting his net too far and inaccurately but that he still might have snagged some real intelligence.

However, Solomon’s correct on one thing — a FISA surveillance warrant is supposed to be based on near-bulletproof conclusions that a US person is operating as a foreign agent. According to Kavalec’s notes, Steele only says that “Carter Paige [sic] is involved” in Manafort’s back-channel connection efforts and held “two secret meetings” with Rosneft chair Igor Sechin. Sechin never got mentioned at all in Mueller’s indictment and ends up as nothing more than a footnote in Mueller’s report, and Kavalec’s notes don’t indicate why this would be a big deal. At least based on Kavalec’s notes of Steele’s brief, Manafort looked more likely to be a Russian agent than Page. And yet the FBI never sought a FISA warrant on Manafort … to the best of our knowledge, anyway.


It’s all very curious, no matter how one cuts it.

Addendum: One other point on Manafort and Page should be noted. By October 2016, Manafort was long gone from the Trump campaign while Page was still around. If the concern was that Page was working through Manafort to connect with the Russians, it would have still been more obvious to seek the FISA warrant on Manafort. Why go after Page — unless the FBI wanted to extend its reach into Trump’s campaign?

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David Strom 5:30 PM | June 18, 2024