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Almost a year ago, a former Russia specialist on the National Security Council warned Congress about Russia’s nefarious intentions in American politics. The goal of the Russians in 2016, Fiona Hill told the House Intelligence Committee, was to put whoever became president “under a cloud.”
Not only did the Russians succeed — it was overcast before President Donald Trump even took office — but they also managed to damage the credibility and reputation of the very agency that is supposed to protect against foreign interference in U.S. elections: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In her testimony last year, Hill warned that the opposition research commissioned by the Democratic Party against Trump and later used by the FBI to obtain a surveillance warrant against a campaign official named Carter Page would be a “perfect opportunity” for the Kremlin to inject disinformation into American political discourse. On Sept. 25, the Justice Department declassified documents that show the FBI investigated the primary source of the dossier for being a Russian agent.
One of those documents is a summary of the bureau’s investigation into a researcher at the Brookings Institution in 2009 and 2010. It says that in late 2008 he approached other researchers there who were joining the incoming administration of Barack Obama and asked if they wanted to make “a little extra money” once they were in their new positions and had access to classified information. The FBI later learned that in 2006 the primary source had contacts with “known Russian intelligence officers” at the Russian embassy in Washington.
In 2010, the FBI closed its investigation because the primary source “had apparently left the United States.” But the bureau left open the prospect of reopening the probe if the primary source ever returned to the U.S.
These facts alone are not dispositive. The former British spy who compiled the opposition research dossier on Trump’s campaign, Christopher Steele, has said that he is able to distinguish between real and fake information. It’s also possible that his source, the former Brookings Institution researcher, was acting as a kind of double agent.
That said, “much of the material” in Steele’s reporting could not be corroborated, wrote Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz in his scathing 2019 report. “The limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available,” he said. When the Justice Department declassified the three-day interview with Steele’s primary source, it showed that he had disavowed much of the information in Steele’s dossier.
There were other signs that Steele was being played. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe informed the Senate Judiciary Committee this week that the U.S. government received a report that Russian intelligence surmised in July 2016 that “Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.” Ratcliffe says the intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
Nonetheless, it was important enough for then-CIA director John Brennan to brief the president about it, according to Ratcliffe, and for U.S. intelligence officials to forward an investigation referral to the FBI in September 2016. Earlier this year, the intelligence community declassified a series of footnotes to the Horowitz report that showed other U.S. intelligence officers had warned that Steele’s dossier may contain Russian disinformation.
One might expect the FBI’s leadership to be deeply embarrassed about all of this. People such as former FBI Director James Comey have been warning for years about the danger of Russia’s disinformation campaign against the public. The 2017 intelligence community assessment of Russia’s interference in the election of the previous year includes an entire section on Russia’s English-language propaganda station, RT.
But in a hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey said he had no recollection that Steele’s primary source had been investigated for being a Russian spy or that U.S. intelligence officers referred the intelligence on Russia’s assessment of Clinton’s campaign strategy to the FBI.
None of this is to say that the FBI was colluding with Russia. Rather, it suggests that in their panic over the possibility of a Trump victory in 2016, FBI leaders — much like many cable news networks — embraced shoddy and now discredited intelligence to make a case against his campaign. The signs were there that Steele’s research was bunk, but the bureau ignored them.
None of this information gets Trump off the hook, either. He has aided and abetted Russian disinformation by repeatedly denying that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. This gives the Russians cover and encouragement to do it all over again this year, which is exactly what the intelligence community has been warning about.
In this respect, Trump himself, like the FBI, is a victim of Russian disinformation.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.