Special counsel John Durham is reportedly scrutinizing British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s main source for his discredited dossier, using a subpoena to obtain documents from the Brookings Institution related to its employment of Igor Danchenko, a researcher who visited Russia in 2016 as he worked for the ex-MI6 agent.
The New York Times reported on Monday, citing “people familiar with the investigation,” that Durham “has keyed in on the FBI’s handling of a notorious dossier of political opposition research both before and after the bureau started using it to obtain court permission to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser.” The outlet said Durham obtained records from the left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., related to Danchenko, who worked for the organization from 2005 to 2010 as a Russia researcher but is best known as the main source for Steele’s discredited Trump-Russia dossier in 2016.
The new report said in February, before Merrick Garland was confirmed as attorney general, Durham “obtained old personnel files and other documents” related to Danchenko from the Brookings Institution through a subpoena.
Michael Cavadel, the general counsel at Brookings, said the subpoena was received on New Year’s Eve and the think tank took until February to produce the documents to Durham in part because of coronavirus-related delays. Cavadel told the New York Times that “Brookings provided the responsive documents, none of which contained information associated with the reports known as the Steele dossier.”
The news report said Durham “has also asked questions that suggested a focus on skepticism about how the FBI approached issues that might have undermined the dossier’s credibility as a basis for wiretap applications” and that Durham has been asking why the FBI did not tell the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that Danchenko “had once been the subject of a counterintelligence investigation.”
Neither Danchenko nor Brookings immediately responded to the Washington Examiner’s request for comment.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report in December 2019 that concluded Steele's discredited dossier played a “central and essential” role in the FBI's effort to obtain wiretap orders against Carter Page, a 2016 Trump campaign adviser who was never charged with a crime and denied any wrongdoing. The DOJ watchdog criticized the bureau for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions.”
Durham discovered that U.S.-based and Russia-trained Danchenko, Steele’s primary sub-source, was investigated by the FBI as a possible “threat to national security,” according to documents declassified by then-Attorney General William Barr and released in September. The FBI team, working in an operation dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane,” apparently became aware of this information about Steele’s primary sub-source in December 2016.
A declassified footnote from Horowitz’s report, relayed by Barr, states, “The Primary Sub-source was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation” from May 2009 to March 2011 that “assessed his/her documented contacts with suspected Russian intelligence officers.”
At least three employees at Brookings had some connection to the dissemination of the Steele dossier, records show.
Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings from 2002 through 2017, spoke with Steele in 2016 and received a copy of the dossier just before the 2016 election.
“Dear Strobe, I know this is not straight forward but we need to discuss the package we delivered to you the other week, and sooner the better. What you thought of it, what you did with it, how we (both) should handle it and the issue it highlights going forward etc.,” Steele wrote on Nov. 12, 2016, to Talbott.
Talbott, a deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration and chairman of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, shared the dossier with Fiona Hill, then a Brookings fellow, in January 2017, just before BuzzFeed published it. Talbott’s brother-in-law, Cody Shearer, wrote his own Trump-Russia dossier in 2016.
Steele told the FBI in London in September 2017 he believed Hill, the top Russia expert on former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, knew about the involvement of Danchenko with his dossier, records made public in December show.
Hill has criticized the dossier as possibly being compromised by Russian disinformation, and Steele’s claims contradict Hill’s sworn testimony before the House in October 2019.
“I have no knowledge whatsoever of how he developed that dossier, none,” Hill said. “The first time I saw that dossier was the day before it was published in BuzzFeed when a colleague, like, it seemed to be about half of Washington, D.C., had it and showed me a copy of it, and I was shocked.”
“I am not aware of any third party having any knowledge of any projects that I worked on in the private sector… I never shared any details of my work with anyone, including with Dr. Hill,” Danchenko told the Washington Examiner in January.
In her 2015 book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Hill said Danchenko “provided us with a wealth of insights into and information” about Russian President Vladimir Putin and “gained notoriety as the person (the only person) to obtain, in 2005, a copy of Putin’s dissertation,” which they concluded was plagiarized.
Hill was critical of Steele's dossier when she spoke to Congress, testifying Steele’s dossier was a “rabbit hole” and Steele “could have been played” by the Russians. She said, “It’s very likely that the Russians planted disinformation” in the dossier.
Declassified footnotes from Horowitz’s report that were made public in 2020 indicate the bureau became aware that Steele’s dossier may have been compromised by Russian disinformation. Horowitz said Danchenko “contradicted the allegations of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’ in” Steele’s dossier.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings, wrote to then-FBI Director James Comey’s alias email, Reinhold Niebuh, about the dossier on Dec. 28, 2016.
“I’m writing because a very strange document has crossed my desk that may — or may not — have implications for investigations you guys are conducting,” Wittes said.
“We’re friends. We communicate regularly, but I am not among his close intimates or advisers,” Wittes wrote in Lawfare in May 2017. “I know nothing about the Russia investigation that isn’t public. Comey has never talked to me about a live investigative matter — and I’ve never asked him to.”
The New York Times report said Durham “is also said to be interested in a meeting” between the FBI and Steele in Rome in early October 2016. The special counsel “is said to have asked why FBI officials at that October meeting apparently did not ask” Steele if he was the source for a Yahoo News article “before using his information to apply for permission to wiretap” Page.
Steele refused to hand over to Durham notes the former MI6 agent took of meetings with the FBI in July and October 2016, according to a December report by Politico.
During the October 2016 meeting, the FBI revealed to Steele that Trump 2016 campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was under investigation after a “Friendly Foreign Government,” then-Australian envoy Alexander Downer, relayed a conversation about Papadopoulos being told about alleged Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton, and Steele told Fusion GPS. The FBI also told Steele about Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump campaign adviser Michael Flynn, and Page.
The New York Times reported that Durham has yet to interview Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, or former FBI special agent Peter Strzok.
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