The Justice Department released a 26-page interview that the FBI conducted with British ex-spy Christopher Steele in September 2017, but the bureau’s lengthy notes of its two-day questioning of the dossier author were completely redacted aside from one paragraph that provided scant details about the interviewing agents.
The release was part of nearly 1,000 pages publicly released by the DOJ at the end of October as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking access to the FBI interviews, which were tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, that had been brought by CNN and BuzzFeed. The small portion of the FBI interview notes that were not entirely blacked out consist of two somewhat-redacted sentences, which note that the former MI6 agent spoke with a supervisory special agent and a supervisory intelligence analyst on Sept. 18-19, 2017, in which he was joined by his Orbis Business Intelligence partner Christopher Burrows for between 45 minutes to an hour the first day. The rest of the more than two dozen pages remain fully redacted, with the DOJ citing a host of FOIA exemptions to justify concealing the contents of Steele’s claims.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report criticized the DOJ and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against Trump campaign associate Carter Page and for the bureau's reliance on the Democrat-funded dossier compiled by Steele. The former MI6 agent was hired by Fusion GPS in June 2016, and the opposition research firm had been hired by the Perkins Coie law firm, which was working for the Clinton campaign.
Horowitz’s report touches on the September 2017 interview with Steele, noting that it occurred after the FBI had obtained its third FISA renewal against Page. Horowitz said that the yet-redacted interview “further highlighted discrepancies between Steele's presentation of information in the election reporting and the views of his Primary Sub-source,” who has been revealed to be United States-based and Russia-trained lawyer Igor Danchenko. During the FBI interview with Steele, he “also made statements that conflicted with explanations from two of his sub-sources about their access to Russian officials.” Horowitz said Steele's interview with the FBI “also revealed bias against Trump,” as Steele and Burrows described Trump as their “main opponent.” The supervisory intelligence analyst told Horowitz that Steele demonstrated “clear bias” against Trump.
The extensive redactions in the interview followed calls from Trump last month for Trump-Russia records to be declassified in the lead-up to the presidential race.
“I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” Trump tweeted on Oct. 6, adding that “all Russia Hoax Scandal information was Declassified by me long ago. Unfortunately for our Country, people have acted very slowly, especially since it is perhaps the biggest political crime in the history of our Country. Act!!!”
But Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told a federal court that the president’s tweets were not declassification orders.
An FBI document laying out the efforts taken by the bureau to attempt to verify the claims in Steele’s dossier was also released last month, showing the bureau’s failed efforts to confirm the dossier’s claims of collusion between the Kremlin and then-candidate Trump.
FBI notes of a January 2017 interview conducted with Danchenko were released earlier this year, showing he told the bureau that he didn't know where some of the dossier's claims attributed to him came from and that his Russian sources never mentioned some of the allegations. Danchenko told bureau agents he “did not know the origins” of some Steele claims and “did not recall” other information in the dossier. Steele’s source told the FBI that Steele mischaracterized at least one of his own Russian source contacts, too. Danchenko noted that much of what he gave to Steele was “word of mouth and hearsay,” that some of it stemmed from a “conversation that [he] had with friends over beers,” and that the most salacious Trump allegations may have been made in “jest.”
Declassified footnotes from Horowitz’s report indicate that the bureau became aware that Steele’s dossier may have been compromised by Russian disinformation, and FBI interviews show Steele’s primary subsource undercut the credibility of the dossier.
Horowitz’s report said that Steele’s “primary Sub-source made statements during his/her January 2017 FBI interview that were inconsistent with multiple sections of the Steele reports.” Horowitz said that Steele’s main source “contradicted the allegations of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’ in” Steele’s dossier. Recently declassified documents also show the FBI had previously investigated Steele’s main source as a possible “threat to national security.”
Trump’s declassification tweets in early October came hours after Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declassified two heavily redacted Russia-related documents, including handwritten notes from former CIA Director John Brennan that showed he briefed then-President Barack Obama in 2016 on an unverified Russian intelligence report alleging that Democratic presidential candidate Clinton planned in July 2016 on tying then-candidate Trump to Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee to distract from her use of a private email server.
Mueller’s report concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but it “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.”
Ratcliffe also announced last month that he handed over nearly 1,000 pages of documents to assist in the DOJ’s inquiry into the Trump-Russia investigators led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, and he also said that the declassification process had also begun on a 2018 Republican-led House Intelligence Committee report on Russian election interference.
It remains to be seen what further information will be made public as the vote count continues in the presidential race between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
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