The House Intelligence Committee memo about 2016 surveillance abuses, released Friday, lays out grave evidence that the FBI wasn’t fully forthcoming with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as it sought an order to wiretap former Trump adviser Carter Page. It’s possible the FBI’s lack of candor was even worse than the memo describes.
Democrats are disputing the memo on lots of grounds, but they’ve said little about the FBI’s failure to inform the court that the bureau had itself decided one of its main sources, dossier author Christopher Steele, was unreliable. Mr. Steele in October 2016 gave Mother Jones an unauthorized interview about the dossier. As a former British intelligence officer, Mr. Steele would have known that sources are not supposed to blab to the press. The interview appeared but a few days before the election, was at the direction of his paymaster, the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS, and was clearly designed to help the ultimate client: the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Stuck with a source now brazenly using the FBI for political purposes, the bureau suspended and then terminated Mr. Steele. Only nine days before the Mother Jones interview, the bureau had filed its application for the Page wiretap order, which rested on the Steele dossier. Yet the FBI did not immediately go back to tell the court it no longer trusted Mr. Steele, the author of a crucial piece of evidence.
And the Mother Jones interview wasn’t the first time Mr. Steele went to the press. A month earlier he had sat down with an array of media outlets to brief them on the dossier that he’d given the FBI in July. Out of this came a Sept. 23, 2016, article by Michael Isikoff in Yahoo News, published under the headline “U.S. intel officials probe ties between Trump adviser and Kremlin.” The story was a bombshell, blowing the FBI investigation into the public sphere.
The FBI and Justice Department intimately knew this article, as they relied on it as part of their wiretap application. And while Mr. Isikoff did not name Mr. Steele as his source, the FBI should have been able to figure out his identity. The Isikoff article relates specific dossier details, though the dossier wasn’t public at the time. It explains that the “intelligence reports” the FBI was reviewing—the dossier—came from a “well-placed Western intelligence source.” Sen. Chuck Grassley last month referred Mr. Steele to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation of whether he lied to the feds about his contacts with the press. From this we can assume that the FBI’s FISA court application claimed Mr. Steele had not worked with the press.
The House memo gives the FBI the benefit of the doubt, stating that Mr. Steele “improperly concealed from and lied to the FBI about those contacts.” Then again, what was the date of this claim? If Mr. Steele told the FBI when he first met with them in July that he’d not briefed media, that would have been accurate as far as we know. Did the FBI ask him again after the Isikoff article?
Even if it did and if he denied talking to reporters, the FBI would have had every reason to believe he was lying. The provenance of the Isikoff article is exceptionally clear. And the FBI could easily have checked Mr. Steele’s recent whereabouts (Britain or the U.S.) or even asked Mr. Isikoff, though he might not have answered. While Mr. Steele might have proved unreliable, there’s reason to wonder if he’d lie outright to the FBI.
The Grassley referral needs be fully declassified, just as the House memo was. The FBI needs to answer straightforward questions about Mr. Steele’s claims, and he needs to provide his version.
The FBI got fooled by a source, or it knew its source was lying, or it didn’t bother to check, or it was too incompetent to see the obvious. Take your pick. None of the possibilities look good, especially if you’re a FISA judge.
Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.