by Chuck Ross
John Durham, the U.S. attorney investigating aspects of the Trump-Russia probe, has sought notes that former British spy Christopher Steele took during his interviews in 2016 with the FBI regarding a since-debunked dossier he penned that accused the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russian government.
An FBI agent who took part in one of the interviews with Steele told Justice Department investigators that the ex-spy “clearly … wasn’t truthful” regarding his contacts with members of the media.
Politico reports that Steele and his attorneys have rebuffed the request from Durham, who sought the retired MI6 officer’s notes from meetings he had with FBI personnel on July 5, 2016, and on Oct. 3, 2016.
According to Politico, Durham’s office enlisted a private law firm in London, where Steele is based, to obtain the documents. The law firm filed a motion to unseal Steele’s notes, which were disclosed in a defamation case that the owners of the Russian bank Alfa Bank filed against Steele over allegations he made in the dossier.
Steele’s attorneys offered to provide the lawyers in London with his witness statements in the Alfa Bank case, but have not turned over notes he took during the FBI meetings, according to Politico.
A prosecutor for Durham’s office requested an interview with Steele in February, but he declined the request, Politico also reported.
Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, has been investigating the FBI and the CIA’s intelligence-gathering activities against the Trump campaign since May 2019. His investigation appears to have tracked closely with the findings of a Justice Department inspector general’s (IG) report released on Dec. 9, 2019, that blasted the FBI over its handling of the Steele dossier.
The Politico report indicates that Durham is investigating aspects of the dossier, which Steele compiled on behalf of the the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
Politico cited anonymous sources who speculated that Durham is looking into whether FBI agents disclosed classified information to Steele during the 2016 interviews. Steele’s meeting on July 5, 2016, was with his longtime FBI handler, Michael Gaeta.
Steele shared a memo he compiled as part of the dossier in which he alleged that the Kremlin was blackmailing Donald Trump with video of him with prostitutes in Moscow.
A team of agents met with Steele again in October 2016, months after the bureau had opened its investigation of the Trump campaign, dubbed Crossfire Hurricane.
FBI agents who took part in the meeting told the IG’s office that they were troubled to learn later that Steele had talked to members of the media prior to that meeting.
Steele, who was hired by Fusion GPS, met with reporters from Yahoo! News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The New Yorker in September 2016.
Yahoo! News published a story based on the meeting with Steele on Sept. 23, 2016. The article cited Steele’s allegations about Carter Page, which the FBI also used in its applications for surveillance warrants against the former Trump adviser.
Gaeta, who was Steele’s handling agent, told the IG that it “blew his mind” that Steele had talked with the press because it would have put his source network in danger.
Another FBI agent told the IG’s office that Steele “clearly … wasn’t truthful with us” regarding his contacts with the media.
“Clearly,” the agent reiterated, according to the IG report.
The IG report said that FBI agents told Steele during the interview that they were investigating Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. That information had not been publicly disclosed at the time.
The FBI relied heavily on information from Steele as part of its investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Investigators extensively cited Steele’s information in applications to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
The Justice Department IG report excoriated the FBI for relying on Steele’s information without first verifying it.
U.S. lawmakers have accused Steele of lying to the FBI in 2016 regarding his meetings with journalists to discuss the dossier.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham asked the Justice Department and the FBI in January 2018 to investigate whether Steele provided misleading statements to the bureau regarding his contacts with the media.
The FBI ended up cutting ties with Steele on Oct. 31, 2016, after he served as a source for a story published by Mother Jones that details allegations from the dossier.
Steele testified that he deleted many of his dossier-related communications in January 2017. A State Department official who worked with Steele on the project, Jonathan Winer, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Steele directed him to delete their correspondence on the topic as well.
Notes from Steele’s interviews in September 2017 with the FBI as part of the special counsel’s probe also show that he did not disclose that he met with journalists in September 2016.
According to the FBI employees’ notes, Steele apologized for going to the media, but said that he found himself “riding two horses” — the FBI and his client, Fusion GPS.
The notes say that Steele explained that he went to the media at Fusion GPS’s direction after then-FBI Director James Comey announced he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
“We had to pick ‘one horse’ and we chose the business ‘horse’ vs. the ‘FBI’ horse – hence, we followed what our client wanted and spoke to the press,” the notes describe Steele saying.
Steele failed to disclose that by the time Comey announced reopening the Clinton probe, on Oct. 28, 2016, he had already met with multiple other journalists and served as a source for the Yahoo! News story.
There is no indication from the FBI notes that the agents asked Steele whether he was a source for the Yahoo! story.
The special counsel’s report debunked the core thesis of the dossier that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government to release emails hacked from Democrats in order to influence the 2016 election. The special counsel’s report said that prosecutors found no evidence that Trump associates conspired with Russia or played any role in hacking Democrats’ emails.
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Chuck Ross is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.