On Jan. 12, 2017, former FBI Director James Comey attested to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the now-discredited information from former British spy Christopher Steele regarding Russian collusion had been "verified". Thanks to an FOIA request, we now have documentary evidence showing Comey pressing ahead to validate Steele amid a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of other agency heads. Clearly, the latter were reluctant to push Steele’s salacious storytelling, lest they throw additional doubt on their own threadbare tales of Trump’s collusion with Russia.
Comey wanted to use Steele’s reporting to buttress an already flaw-filled FBI filing for a warrant to prolong eavesdropping on Carter Page. (Page was a foreign policy adviser who began working with the Trump campaign in March 2016.). Trouble is that on the same day (Jan. 12, 2017) that Comey told the FISA Court that Steele’s reporting was "verified", Comey emailed then-National Intelligence Director James Clapper admitting that the FBI was "not able to sufficiently corroborate the [Steele’s] reporting".
If you find it difficult to reconcile those two statements, you are not alone. Was Steele’s reporting "verified"? Or was it uncorroborated? How to explain.
Comey was hell-bent on renewing the original (October 21, 2016 ) 90-day warrant he signed to surveil Carter Page. And if that required morphing "uncorroborated" into "verified", no big deal? The rubber-stamp FISA judge would be none the wiser, and who knows what juicy tidbits might turn up in that surveillance.
Comey’s email to Clapper betrays concern that his colleague intelligence gurus might not want to go out on the shaky Steele limb. Comey knew of the pungent odor in which Steele’s reporting was widely held/smelled. So, in an effort to head off unnecessary trouble, in his email, Comey suggested, "… it may not be best to say ‘The IC [Intelligence Community] has not made any judgment that the information in the [Steele] document is reliable’".
What Comey knew is that Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan were equally determined to avoid adding the Steele fiasco to the list of other smelly irons they had in the fire. As things turned out, Comey’s demurral about what his colleagues should say about Steele came too late.
In his email explanation to Comey, Clapper said "I apologize for not running this by you … We caucused this afternoon and decided I should call the president-elect…I spoke to him for 20 minutes and expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press … I told him I do not believe these leaks are coming from the Intelligence Community (sic). (Buzzfeed had published the Steele dossier on Jan. 10.). Was it actually profound dismay Clapper felt, or more likely crocodile tears?
As for Steele’s reporting, Clapper told Comey that he had already given the offending sentence to the media; namely, "The IC has not made any judgment that the information in the [Steele] document is reliable" – the wording that Comey wanted changed – and that CNN had "already picked it up…"
So What’s the Big Deal About Carter Page?
Carter Page was simply low hanging fruit – a target of opportunity because he was known to have had contacts with Russians; he was easy pickings. Trump and higher-ups were the real target. As explained below, snoopers could get at Trump and others by getting just one warrant – on whatever flimsy grounds.
The "evidence" used by Comey and his "folks" to "justify" the FISA warrants included not only Page’s known contacts with Russian officials (even though CIA had told the FBI from the outset that those contacts had been approved), but also the phony-as-a-three-dollar-bill "Steele dossier".
The first FISA warrant renewal application, signed by Comey on Jan. 12, 2017, shows him determined to attempt to spy on Trump and his associates after Trump had become president-elect and then president. At a Senate hearing on Sept. 30, 2020, Sen. Lindsey Graham gave a chronological rundown of the evidence that Comey and his "folks" either knew, or should have known, so that by signing fraudulent FISA warrant applications they were perpetrating fraud on the court.
The original FBI application for a FISA warrant on Carter Page was dated Oct. 21, 2016. The three renewal applications were on January 12, April 7, and June 29, 2017. A different FISC judge considered each application and issued the requested orders, collectively resulting in about 11 months of FISA coverage targeting Carter Page from October 21, 2016, to September 22, 2017.
Spy on Trump?
Few outsiders are aware that those warrants covered not only Page but also anyone Page was in contact with – as well as anyone Page’s contacts were in contact with – under the so-called two-hop surveillance practice. In other words, the warrants extend coverage two hops from the target – that is, anyone Page talks to and anyone they, in turn, talk to.
According to two former technical directors at NSA, Bill Binney and Ed Loomis, when President Barack Obama approved the current version of "two hops," the NSA was ecstatic. It is easy to see why. Let’s say Page was in touch with Donald Trump (as candidate or president); Trump’s communications would then be surveilled, as well – and not just his communications with Page. Or, let’s say Page was in touch with Google. That would enable NSA to cover pretty much the entire world.
A thorough reading of the transcript of the Sept. 30, 2020 Senate hearing mentioned above, including the Q-and-A, shows that this crucial two-hop authorization never came up. Those Senators aware of it may have been too afraid to mention it. Observers were left with the impression that Page were the only one being surveilled (producing a yawn and a "what’s the big deal?").
With this latest documentary disclosure, what was already fairly transparent is now obvious in all its squalor. Steele was hired by the Democrats in June 2016 to come up with material embarrassing to rival candidate Donald Trump. He must have been paid by-the-page, for he seriously outdid himself in soliciting and reporting a kitchen sink’s worth of bar-talk – including highly salacious material – to character-assassinate Trump.
What the recent FOIA revelations confirm is that Steele’s drivel could not pass the smell test – not even among intelligence chiefs like National Intelligence Director James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan. They took care to dissociate themselves from Steele, even though they were working on parallel paths to ensure Trump could not win. Comey went ahead anyway. What’s to lose?
It is helpful to note that, back in October 2016 when the FBI obtained the first FISA surveillance warrant on Page a few weeks before the Nov. 2016 election, there seemed to be little need to hide tracks, because, even if these extracurricular activities were discovered, the perps would have looked forward to award certificates from a President Clinton rather than possible legal problems under a Trump presidency. Mrs. Clinton was a shoo-in, remember? In his "A Higher Loyalty", Comey writes, "I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president …"
Let’s harken back to what was happening in January 2017 when Comey decided to use the Steele material to fortify his application for renewal of the FISA warrant on Carter Page. Remember: Trump may have been supremely confident, but he was new to the ways of Washington and the portages of J. Edgar Hoover still lurking in the shadows.
Here’s what went down in Jan. 2017:
Jan. 3, 2017: In a highly revealing interview with Rachel Maddow, then-minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D, NY) warns in no uncertain terms that President-elect Trump should not get crosswise with U.S. intelligence. Schumer: "Take on the intelligence community and they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you." Donald Trump probably was not watching Maddow that evening, so he had to learn from experience, which began like this:
Jan. 5: The "Gang of Four" (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers) brief Obama and Biden on the evidence-impoverished CIA/FBI/NSA "assessment" (to be published on Jan. 6) that Vladimir Putin did all he could to help Trump become president. As for Steele’s information, VP Biden’s office confirmed that Obama and Biden were also briefed on the Steele dossier. The Gang of Four had decided that Comey would be the one to handle what would inevitably be a sensitive session with Trump on the Steele allegations. Comey later told ABC that when Obama was told that Comey would brief Trump on the Steele material, the president gave him a "double eyebrow raise". Comey interpreted the eyebrow raise as Obama’s way of saying, "Good luck with that … You poor bastard".
Jan. 6: All goes according to script. The Gang of Four visit Trump Tower and tell the president-elect that the Intelligence Community believes Putin helped him win and that, by the way, the misnomered "Intelligence Community Assessment", saying that, is being published that same day (Jan. 6). The NY Times immediately rushed onto its website an article titled "Putin Led a Complex Cyberattack Scheme to Aid Trump, Report Finds". And on Jan. 7, the Times’s front-page banner headline read: "Putin Led Scheme to Aid Trump, Report Says", providing credulous readers with "proof" that Trump owed his election win to Russia’s "influence campaign". A shot of adrenaline for Russia-gate. As planned, after his three colleagues depart, Comey tells Trump of the Steele allegations, adding that the FBI had not validated the allegations, but thought it was important for the president to know.
Jan. 10: Buzzfeed publishes the Steele dossier.
Jan. 12: Comey tells FISA Court Steele material is "verified"; tells Clapper it is "not sufficiently corroborated".
Jan. 24, 2017: FBI agents begin to interview Steele’s main subsource, who casts strong doubt on Steele’s reporting.
April 15, 2018: Comey tells ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Steele’s reporting was "still unverified" when Comey was fired (May 9, 2017); that an agency effort to verify as much as possible about the report was still under way; and he was "not sure" how much of the information in the dossier checked out. (Note: the superb acting in this interview is a treat to watch, including gee-wiz parts played by Comey and a professionally credulous Stephanopoulos.)
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).