The FBI deceived the House, Senate and the Justice Department about the substance and strength of evidence undergirding its counterintelligence investigation of President Trump, according to a recently declassified document and other material.
A seven-page internal FBI memo dated March 8, 2017, shows that "talking points" prepared for then-FBI Director James Comey for his meeting the next day with the congressional leadership were riddled with half-truths, outright falsehoods, and critical omissions. Both the Senate and the House opened investigations and held hearings based in part on the misrepresentations made in those FBI briefings, one of which was held in the Senate that morning and the other in the House later that afternoon. RealClearInvestigations reached out to every member of the leadership, sometimes known as the "Gang of Eight." Some declined to comment, while others did not respond to queries.
The talking points were prepared by Lisa Page, a senior FBI lawyer who later resigned from the bureau amid accusations of anti-Trump bias, and were used by Comey in his meeting with Hill leaders. They described reports the FBI received in 2016 from "a former FBI CHS," or confidential human source, about former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Carter Page (no relation to Lisa Page) allegedly conspiring with the Kremlin to hack the election.
Quoting from the reports, Comey told congressional leaders that the unidentified informant told the FBI that Manafort "initially 'managed' the relationship between Russian government officials and the Trump campaign, using Carter Page as an intermediary." He also told them that "Page was reported to have had 'secret meetings' in early July 2016 with a named individual in Russia's presidential administration during which they discussed Russia's release of damaging information on Hillary Clinton in exchange for alterations to the GOP platform regarding U.S. policy towards Ukraine."
But previous FBI interviews with Carter Page and other key sources indicated that none of that was true – and the FBI knew it at the time of the congressional briefings.
The Lisa Page memo anticipated concerns about the quality of information Comey was relaying to Congress and suggested he preempt any concerns with another untruth. The memo advised Comey to tell lawmakers that "some" of the reporting "has been corroborated," and to point out that the informant's "reporting in this matter is derived primarily from a Russian-based source," which made it sound more credible.
By this point, however, the FBI knew that the main source feeding unsubstantiated rumors to the informant, Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent paid by Hillary Clinton's campaign to dig up dirt on Trump, was American-based.
The FBI first interviewed that source – a Russian national named Igor Danchenko who was living in the U.S. and had worked at the Brookings Institution – in January 2017. Danchenko had told them that the anti-Trump dirt he funneled to Steele was dubious hearsay passed along over drinks with his high school buddies and an old girlfriend named Olga Galkina, who had made up the accusations about Carter Page and Manafort that the FBI relayed to Congress.
Danchenko is now under criminal indictment in Special Counsel John Durham's ongoing investigation for lying about the sourcing for his information. The source to whom he attributed spurious charges against Trump – including his being compromised by a sex tape held by the Kremlin – was a fabrication, according to the indictment. He never spoke with the person as he claimed. Another source turned out to be a longtime Hillary Clinton campaign adviser.
The FBI did not tell the Gang of Eight that Danchenko was working for Steele and did not really have any sources inside the Kremlin, according to the script prepared for Comey, which was recently declassified as part of pre-trial discovery in Special Counsel John Durham's probe. The FBI also concealed Steele's identity and the fact he was working for the Clinton campaign.
Adding to the deception, Comey referred to the unnamed informant by the codename "CROWN," making it appear as if Steele's dossier was a product of British intelligence, although Steele had not worked for the British government for several years and was reporting entirely in a private capacity. According to the talking-points memo, Comey also withheld from Congress the fact that Steele had been fired by the FBI for leaking information to the media. Instead of sharing that critical information about his reliability and credibility – to say nothing of his political and financial motivations – Comey hid the truth about his star informant from the nation's top lawmakers.
"If asked about CROWN/Steele" during the briefing, the memo anticipated, Comey was to tell lawmakers only that "CROWN, a former FBI CHS, is a former friendly foreign intelligence service employee who reported for about three years, and some of whose reporting has been corroborated."
Meanwhile, FBI headquarters officials were duping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court in similar fashion in order to continue to obtain warrants to spy on Carter Page. They led judges on the secret surveillance court to believe Danchenko was "Russian-based" – and therefore presumably more credible.
The official in charge of vetting the Steele dossier at the time – and interviewing him and his primary source Danchenko to corroborate their allegations – was FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten. By March 2017, Auten knew the "Russian-based" claim was untrue, and yet he let case agents slip it into two FISA renewal requests targeting Page.
Auten seemed to become concerned about the falsehood only when the Senate Judiciary Committee asked to see the Page spy warrants. He then reviewed the FISA applications in advance of Comey briefing the panel on March 15 and raised concerns with then-FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, who was assisting with redactions to the documents before sharing them with Congress. Auten wondered in text messages whether a correction should be reported to the court. But no amendment was ever made.
Years later, in a closed-door 2020 hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee investigators finally caught up with Auten and asked him about it.
"The FISA applications all say that he's Russian-based," then-chief Senate Judiciary Committee investigative counsel Zach Somers pressed Auten. "Do you think that should have been corrected with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?"
Auten said he raised the issue with Clinesmith, who was convicted last year by Durham on charges related to falsifying evidence in the FISA application process. "And what response did you get back?" Somers asked. "I did not get a response back," Auten replied.
Fraud and More Fraud
And so the "Russian-based" fraud lived on through the FISA renewals, which also swore to the court that Danchenko was "truthful and cooperative." (Attempts to reach Auten for comment were unsuccessful. The FBI declined comment.)
The five-year statute of limitations for criminal liability related to the invalid FISA applications expires at the end of this month. It has already expired regarding false statement offenses that may have been committed during the March 2017 Gang of Eight briefings.
However, legal experts say Durham could bypass the statute by filing conspiracy charges. Some former FBI attorneys and prosecutors believe the special counsel is building a "conspiracy to defraud the government" case against former FBI officials and others.
Around the same time, the FBI similarly misled high-ranking officials at the Justice Department.
In a March 6, 2017 briefing on the Russiagate probe to acting Attorney General Dana Boente, Comey's deputy Andrew McCabe and counterintelligence official Peter Strzok suggested that Steele's material came from the British government rather than the Clinton campaign by referring to it as "CROWN source reporting," according to handwritten notes taken during the meeting.
Strzok falsely suggested to Boente that the probable cause for his opening the Russiagate investigation, codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, included Trump asking Russia during a July 2016 public campaign appearance to find Clinton's 30,000 missing State Department emails she had deleted from a private server. The electronic communication Strzok personally wrote to officially open the investigation made no mention of this incident. What's more, Trump made the sarcastic remark after the date when Strzok stated the FBI determined probable cause.
Strzok, who did not respond to requests for comment, spread the same false claim in his book. He recently admitted in a Georgetown University forum he got that detail wrong, while blaming a faulty memory. Strzok was fired by Special Counsel Robert Mueller after the Justice inspector general alerted Mueller to virulently anti-Trump texts he had exchanged with Lisa Page, with whom he was having an illicit affair.
During the high-level briefing, Strzok and McCabe shaded other facts to make it seem as if the case against Trump and his advisers were stronger than it was in order to convince the attorney general they had justifiable cause to continue their "sensitive" political investigations. For instance, they told Boente that the secret FISA monitoring of Page's phone and emails was "fruitful," when in fact collections failed to corroborate the dossier allegations against Page.
The next month, Boente approved and signed the third application to surveil the Trump adviser. Carter Page was never charged with a crime. But the year-long surveillance, which didn't end until Sept. 22, 2017, allowed FBI headquarters to potentially monitor the Trump presidency through what is known as "incidental collections" of emails, texts and phone and Skype conversations.
On March 20, 2017, Comey went to Capitol Hill and publicly announced for the first time the existence of the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane investigation into Trump and his campaign.
"The FBI, as part of our counter-intelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts," Comey testified.
The unusual public disclosure of an active investigation opened the floodgates to media hysteria about possible Trump "collusion" with Russia and triggered years of congressional hearings and investigations that dragged Trump figures into countless hours of depositions under subpoena.
Two months later, Mueller took over where fired Comey left off and breathed new life into the counterintelligence and criminal investigations. In the end, Mueller found no evidence Trump or any Trump official or associate conspired with any Russians to interfere in the election or conduct other espionage. The case, like the Clinton campaign-funded dossier that inspired it, was a bust.
Tellingly, Lisa Page also personally briefed Mueller about the FBI's investigation when the special counsel took over the case in May 2017. She boasted that Mueller was so impressed with her "overview" that he hired her on the spot. "I want her on my team," she said Mueller told her immediate boss McCabe.
Page did not return requests for comment through her Washington attorney.