The mysterious “Primary Subsource” that Christopher Steele has long hidden behind to defend his discredited Trump-Russia dossier is a former Brookings Institution analyst -- Igor “Iggy” Danchenko, a Russian national whose past includes criminal convictions and other personal baggage ignored by the FBI in vetting him and the information he fed to Steele, according to congressional sources and records obtained by RealClearInvestigations. Agents continued to use the dossier as grounds to investigate President Trump and put his advisers under counter-espionage surveillance.
The 42-year-old Danchenko, who was hired by Steele in 2016 to deploy a network of sources to dig up dirt on Trump and Russia for the Hillary Clinton campaign, was arrested, jailed and convicted years earlier on multiple public drunkenness and disorderly conduct charges in the Washington area and ordered to undergo substance-abuse and mental-health counseling, according to criminal records.
Fiona Hill: She worked at the Brookings Institution with dossier "Primary Subsource" Igor “Iggy” Danchenko (top photo), and testified against President Trump last year during impeachment hearings. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
In an odd twist, a 2013 federal case against Danchenko was prosecuted by then-U.S Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who ended up signing one of the FBI’s dossier-based wiretap warrants as deputy attorney general in 2017.
Danchenko first ran into trouble with the law as he began working for Brookings - the preeminent Democratic think tank in Washington - where he struck up a friendship with Fiona Hill, the White House adviser who testified against Trump during last year's impeachment hearings. Danchenko has described Hill as a mentor, while Hill has sung his praises as a “creative” researcher.
Hill is also close to his boss Steele, who she’d known since 2006. She met with the former British intelligence officer during the 2016 campaign and later received a raw, unpublished copy of the now-debunked dossier.
It does not appear the FBI asked Danchenko about his criminal past or state of sobriety when agents interviewed him in January 2017 in a failed attempt to verify the accuracy of the dossier, which the bureau did only after agents used it to obtain a warrant to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The opposition research was farmed out by Steele, working for Clinton's campaign, to Danchenko, who was paid for the information he provided.
A newly declassified FBI summary of the FBI-Danchenko meeting reveals agents learned that key allegations in the dossier, which claimed Trump engaged in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” with the Kremlin against Clinton, were largely inspired by gossip and bar talk among Danchenko and his drinking buddies, most of whom were childhood friends from Russia.
The FBI memo is heavily redacted and blacks out the name of Steele’s Primary Subsource. But public records and congressional sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirm the identity of the source as Danchenko.
In the memo, the FBI notes that Danchenko said that he and one of his dossier sources “drink heavily together.” But there is no apparent indication the FBI followed up by asking Danchenko if he had an alcohol problem, which would cast further doubt on his reliability as a source for one of the most important and sensitive investigations in FBI history.
The FBI declined comment. Attempts to reach Danchenko by both email and phone were unsuccessful.
The Justice Department’s watchdog recently debunked the dossier’s most outrageous accusations against Trump, and faulted the FBI for relying on it to obtain secret wiretaps. The bureau’s actions, which originated under the Obama administration, are now the subject of a sprawling criminal investigation led by special prosecutor John Durham.
Rod Rosenstein: In an odd twist, a 2013 drunkenness case against Danchenko was prosecuted by then-U.S Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who ended up signing one of the FBI’s dossier-based wiretap warrants as deputy attorney general in 2017. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)
One of the wiretap warrants was signed in 2017 by Rosenstein, who also that year appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller and signed a “scope” memo giving him wide latitude to investigate Trump and his surrogates. Mueller relied on the dossier too. As it happens, Rosenstein also signed motions filed in one of Danchenko’s public intoxication cases, according to the documents obtained by RCI.
In March 2013 — three years before Danchenko began working on the dossier — federal authorities in Greenbelt, Md., arrested and charged him with several misdemeanors, including “drunk in public, disorderly conduct, and failure to have his [2-year-old] child in a safety seat,” according to a court filing. The U.S. prosecutor for Maryland at the time was Rosenstein, whose name appears in the docket filings.
The Russian-born Danchenko, who was living in the U.S. on a work visa, was released from jail on the condition he undergo drug testing and “participate in a program of substance abuse therapy and counseling,” as well as “mental health counseling,” the records show. His lawyer asked the court to postpone his trial and let him travel to Moscow “as a condition of his employment.” The Russian trips were granted without objection from Rosenstein. Danchenko ended up several months later entering into a plea agreement and paying fines.
In 2006, Danchenko was arrested in Fairfax, Va., on similar offenses, including "public swearing and intoxication," criminal records show. The case was disposed after he paid a fine.
At the time, Danchenko worked as a research analyst for the Brookings Institution, where he became a protégé of Hill. He collaborated with her on at least two Russian policy papers during his five-year stint at the think tank and worked with another Brookings scholar on a project to uncover alleged plagiarism in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s doctoral dissertation — something Danchenko and his lawyer boasted about during their meeting with FBI agents. (Like Hill, the other scholar, Clifford Gaddy, was a Russia hawk. He and Hill in 2015 authored “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” a book strongly endorsed by Vice President Joe Biden at the time.)
“Igor is a highly accomplished analyst and researcher,” Hill noted on his LinkedIn page in 2011.
“He is very creative in pursuing the most relevant of information and detail to support his research.”
Strobe Talbott of Brookings with Hillary Clinton: He connected with Christopher Steele and passed along a copy of his anti-Trump dossier to Fiona Hill. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Hill also vouched for Steele, an old friend and British intelligence counterpart. The two reunited in 2016, sitting down for at least one meeting. Her boss at the time, Brookings President Strobe Talbott, also connected with Steele and passed along a copy of his anti-Trump dossier to Hill. A tough Trump critic, Talbott previously worked in the Clinton administration and rallied the think tank behind Hillary.
Talbott’s brother-in-law is Cody Shearer, another old Clinton hand who disseminated his own dossier in 2016 that echoed many of the same lurid and unsubstantiated claims against Trump. Through a mutual friend at the State Department, Steele obtained a copy of Shearer’s dossier and reportedly submitted it to the FBI to help corroborate his own.
In August 2016, Talbott personally called Steele, based in London, to offer his own input on the dossier he was compiling from Danchenko’s feeds. Steele phoned Talbott just before the November election, during which Talbott asked for the latest dossier memos to distribute to top officials at the State Department. After Trump’s surprise win, the mood at Brookings turned funereal and Talbott and Steele strategized about how they “should handle” the dossier going forward.
During the Trump transition, Talbott encouraged Hill to leave Brookings and take a job in the White House so she could be “one of the adults in the room” when Russia and Putin came up. She served as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019.
She left the White House just before a National Security Council detailee who’d worked with her, Eric Ciaramella, secretly huddled with Democrats in Congress and alleged Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation of Biden and his son in exchange for military aid. Democrats soon held hearings to impeach Trump, calling Hill as one of their star witnesses.
Congressional investigators are taking a closer look at tax-exempt Brookings, which has emerged as a nexus in the dossier scandal. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the liberal think tank is prohibited from lobbying or engaging in political campaigns. Gryffindor/Wikimedia
Under questioning by Republican staff, Hill disclosed that Steele reached out to her for information about a mysterious individual, but she claimed she could not recall his name. She also said she couldn’t remember the month she and Steele met.
“He had contacted me because he wanted to see if I could give him a contact to some other individual, who actually I don’t even recall now, who he could approach about some business issues,” Hill told the House last year in an Oct. 14 deposition taken behind closed doors.
Congressional investigators are reviewing her testimony, while taking a closer look at tax-exempt Brookings, which has emerged as a nexus in the dossier scandal.
Registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the liberal think tank is prohibited from lobbying or engaging in political campaigns. Specifically, investigators want to know if Brookings played any role in the development of the dossier.
“Their 501(c)(3) status should be audited, because they are a major player in the dossier deal,” said a congressional staffer who has worked on the investigation into alleged Russian influence.
Hill, who returned to Brookings as a senior fellow in January, could not be reached for comment. Brookings did not respond to inquiries.
As a former member of Britain’s secret intelligence service, Steele hadn’t traveled to Russia in decades and apparently had no useful sources there. So he relied entirely on Danchenko and his supposed “network of subsources,” which to its chagrin, the FBI discovered was nothing more than a “social circle.”
It soon became clear over their three days of debriefing him at the FBI’s Washington field office - held just days after Trump was sworn into office - that any Russian insights he may have had were strictly academic.
Danchenko confessed he had no inside line to the Kremlin and was “clueless” when Steele hired him in March 2016 to investigate ties between Russia and Trump and his campaign manager.
Christopher Steele, former British spy, leaving a London court this week in a libel case brought against him by a Russian businessman. Dossier source Danchenko's drinking pals fed him a tissue of false “rumor and speculation” for pay— which Steele, in turn, further embellished with spy-crafty details and sold to his client as “intelligence.” (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)
Desperate for leads, he turned to a ragtag group of Russian and American journalists, drinking buddies (including one who’d been arrested on pornography charges) and even an old girlfriend to scare up information for his London paymaster, according to the FBI’s January 2017 interview memo, which runs 57 pages. Like him, his friends made a living hustling gossip for cash, and they fed him a tissue of false “rumor and speculation” — which Steele, in turn, further embellished with spy-crafty details and sold to his client as “intelligence.”
Instead of closing its case against Trump, however, the FBI continued to rely on the information Danchenko dictated to Steele for the dossier, even swearing to a secret court that it was credible enough to renew wiretaps for another nine months.
One of Danchenko’s sources was nothing more than an anonymous voice on the other end of a phone call that lasted 10-15 minutes.
Danchenko told the FBI he figured out later that the call-in tipster, who he said did not identify himself, was Sergei Millian, a Belarusian-born realtor in New York. In the dossier, Steele labeled this source “an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump,” and attributed Trump-Russia conspiracy revelations to him that the FBI relied on to support probable cause in all four FISA applications for warrants to spy on Trump adviser Carter Page -- including the Mueller-debunked myth that he and the campaign were involved in “the DNC email hacking operation.”
Danchenko explained to agents the call came after he solicited Millian by email in late July 2016 for information for his assignment from Steele. Millian told RCI that though he did receive an email from Danchenko on July 21, he ignored the message and never called him.
“There was not any verbal communications with him,” he insisted. “I’m positive, 100%, nothing what is claimed in whatever call they invented I could have said.”
Millian provided RCI part of the email, which was written mostly in Russian. Contact information at the bottom of the email reads:
Target Labs Inc.
8320 Old Courthouse Rd, Suite 200
Vienna, VA 22182
At the time, Danchenko listed Target Labs, an IT recruiter run by ethnic-Russians, as an employer on his resumé. But technically, he was not a paid employee there. Thanks to a highly unusual deal Steele arranged with the company, Danchenko was able to use Target Labs as an employment front.
It turns out that in 2014, when Danchenko first started freelancing regularly for Steele after losing his job at a Washington strategic advisory firm, he set out to get a security clearance to start his own company. But drawing income from a foreign entity like Steele’s London-based company, Orbis Business Intelligence, would hurt his chances.
So Steele agreed to help him broker a special “arrangement" with Target Labs, where a Russian friend of Danchenko’s worked as an executive, in which the company would bring Danchenko on board as an employee but not put him officially on the payroll. Danchenko would continue working for Steele and getting paid by Orbis with payments funneled through Target Labs. In effect, Target Labs served as the “contract vehicle” through which Danchenko was paid a monthly salary for his work for Orbis, the FBI memo reveals.
Though Danchenko had a desk available to use at Target Labs, he did most of his work for Orbis from home and did not take direction from the firm. Steele continued to give him assignments and direct his travel. Danchenko essentially worked as a ghost employee at Target Labs.
Asked about it, a Target Labs spokesman would only say that Danchenko “does not work with us anymore.”
Brian Auten: He wrote the memo on the FBI's interview with the Primary Subsource, which is silent about Danchenko’s criminal record. Patrick Henry College
Some veteran FBI officials worry Moscow’s foreign intelligence service may have planted disinformation with Danchenko and his network of sources in Russia. At least one of them, identified only as “Source 5” in the FBI memo, was described as having a Russian “kurator,” or handler.
"There are legions of ‘connected' Russians purveying second- and third-hand — and often made-up -- due diligence reports and private intelligence,” said former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker. "Putin's intelligence minions use these people well to plant information.”
Danchenko has scrubbed his social media account. He told the FBI he deleted all his dossier-related electronic communications, including texts and emails, and threw out his handwritten notes from conversations with his subsources.
In the end, Steele walked away from the dossier debacle with at least $168,000, and Danchenko earned a large undisclosed sum.
The FBI interview memo, which is silent about Danchenko’s criminal record, was written by FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten, who was called out in the Justice inspector general report for ignoring inconsistencies, contradictions, errors and outright falsehoods in the dossier he was supposed to verify.
It was also Auten’s duty to vet Steele and his sources. Auten sat in on the meetings with Danchenko and also separate ones with Steele. He witnessed firsthand the countless red flags that popped up from their testimony. Yet Auten continued to tout their reliability as sources, and give his blessing to agents to use their dossier as probable cause to renew FISA surveillance warrants to spy on Page.
As RCI first reported, Auten teaches a national security course at a Washington-area college on the ethics of such spying.