The FBI has been dealt a major blow after a Washington DC judge ruled that the agency must respond to a FOIA request for documents concerning the bureau's efforts to verify the controversial Steele Dossier, before it was used as the foundation of a FISA surveillance warrant application and subsequent renewals.
US District Court Judge Amit Mehta - who in January sided with the FBI's decision to ignore the FOIA request, said that President Trump's release of two House Intelligence Committee documents (the "Nunes" and "Schiff" memos) changed everything.
Considering that the FBI offered Steele $50,000 to verify the Dossier's claims yet never paid him, BuzzFeed has unsuccessfully tried to do the same to defend themselves in a dossier-related lawsuit, and a $50 million Soros-funded investigation to continue the hunt have turned up nothing that we know of - whatever documents the FBI may be forced to cough up regarding their attempts to verify the Dossier could prove highly embarrassing for the agency.
[I]f Mr. Steele could get solid corroboration of his reports, the F.B.I. would pay him $50,000 for his efforts, according to two people familiar with the offer. Ultimately, he was not paid. -NYT
What's more, forcing the FBI to prove they had an empty hand will likely embolden calls to disband the special counsel investigation - as the agency's mercenary and politicized approach to "investigations" will be laid all the more bare for the world to see. Then again, who knows - maybe the FBI verified everything in the dossier and it simply hasn't leaked.
That said, while the FBI will likely be forced to acknowledge the documents thanks to the Thursday ruling, the agency will still be able to try and convince the judge that there are other grounds to withhold the records.
In January, Mehta blessed the FBI's decision not to disclose the existence of any records containing the agency's efforts to verify the dossier - ruling that Trump's tweets about the dossier didn't require the FBI and other intelligence agencies to act on records requests.
"But then the ground shifted," writes Mehta of Trump declassifying the House memos. "As a result of the Nunes and Schiff Memos, there is now in the public domain meaningful information about how the FBI acquired the Dossier and how the agency used it to investigate Russian meddling."
The DOJ also sought to distinguish between the Steele Dossier and a synopsis of the dossier presented to both Trump and then-President Obama in 2016, however Mehta rejected the attempt, writing "That position defies logic," while also rejecting the government's refusal to even say if the FBI has a copy of that synopsis.
"It remains no longer logical nor plausible for the FBI to maintain that it cannot confirm nor deny the existence of documents," Mehta wrote.
It is simply not plausible to believe that, to whatever extent the FBI has made efforts to verify Steele’s reporting, some portion of that work has not been devoted to allegations that made their way into the synopsis. After all, if the reporting was important enough to brief the President-elect, then surely the FBI thought enough of those key charges to attempt to verify their accuracy. It will be up to the FBI to determine which of the records in its possession relating to the reliability of the Dossier concerns Steele’s reporting as discussed in the synopsis.
“This ruling represents another incremental step in revealing just how much the FBI has been able to verify or discredit the rather personal allegations contained in that synopsis derived from the Steele dossier,” said Brad Moss, a lawyer pressing the lawsuit for the pro-transparency group, the James Madison Project. “It will be rather ironic if the president’s peripheral actions that resulted in this ruling wind up disclosing that the FBI has been able to corroborate any of the ‘salacious’ allegations.”
In other words, the FBI must show what they did to verify the claims contained within the Nunes and Schiff memos.
Because the case was heard on appeal, the ruling will not take immediate effect, notes Politico, which adds that the appeals court is now likely to remand the case to Mehta, while the FBI is going to try and convince him the records should remain unreleased.