Grassley Continues to Ask Worthwhile Questions about the Steele Dossier

In this post, I noted several details made clear by Christopher Steele’s defense in a lawsuit pertaining to the dossier he did for opponents to Donald Trump:

  • Steele also shared his dossier with an active British intelligence official, which is a second channel via which the US intelligence community may have obtained the dossier in spite of their hilariously unconvincing denials
  • Steele’s claims he wasn’t sharing actual copies of the dossier with the press, at least, don’t accord with other public claims
  • Steele said absolutely nothing about how he shared the dossier with the FBI (which may have been an alternative channel via which it leaked)
  • Steele obtained the most inflammatory claims in the dossier at a time when he claims neither to have been paid nor to have been actively collecting intelligence (and paying sources)

Taken together, these inconsistencies suggest certain alternative stories about the dossier. For example, it’s possible the dossier was used as a way to launder intelligence gathered via other means, as a way to protect sources and methods. It’s likely the US IC had more awareness and involvement in the dossier than they’ve publicly claimed.

With that in mind, I find it very interesting that Chuck Grassley claims to have found inconsistencies in the story FBI and DOJ are giving him about the dossier.

As I noted at the time, Grassley raised some really good questions in a letter to FBI back on March 6, questions made all the more salient given three somewhat conflicting reports about whether the FBI ever paid Steele.

Yesterday, he held a presser to release another letter to FBI, which he sent last Friday. He explained that nine days after he sent his letter, Comey briefed him and Dianne Feinstein on the circumstances surrounding Mike Flynn’s ouster, and answered a few of the questions Grassley had asked in his March 6 letter. But FBI never did respond to the letter itself, beyond sending a four sentence boilerplate letter on April 19, claiming the questions had been answered in the briefing.

In the letter, Grassley makes clear that documents the committee received from DOJ since (are these not FBI? If so are they NSD?) conflict with what Comey relayed in the briefing in that FBI actually had a more substantive relationship than Comey let on.

There appear to be material inconsistencies between the description of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele that you did provide in your briefing and information contained in Justice Department documents made available to the Committee only after the briefing.  Whether those inconsistencies were honest mistakes or an attempt to downplay the actual extent of the FBI’s relationship with Mr. Steele, it is essential that the FBI fully answer all of the questions from the March 6 letter and provide all the requested documents in order to resolve these and related issues.

Significantly, after having asked these questions about public reports that FBI had discussed paying Steele,

All FBI records relating to the agreement with Mr. Steele regarding his investigation of President Trump and his associates, including the agreement itself, all drafts, all internal FBI communications about the agreement, all FBI communications with Mr. Steele about the agreement, all FBI requests for authorization for the agreement, and all records documenting the approval of the agreement.

[snip]

Did the agreement with Mr. Steele ever enter into force?  If so, for how long?  If it did not, why not?

Grassley is restating that question, asking for documentation of all payments to Steele.

Documentation of all payments made to Mr. Steele, including for travel expenses, if any; the date of any such payments; the amount of such payments; the authorization for such payments.

He asked about it in today’s oversight hearing with Comey, and Comey insisted the appearance of conflict was easy to explain (and promised to explain it). I suspect DOJ may have paid for Steele’s travel to the US in October 2016, which might be fine, but that was also when Steele shared his dossier with David Corn. Otherwise, Comey refused to answer in a public forum questions about whether FBI made any representations to a judge relying on the dossier (for example for the FISA order), whether the FBI was aware that Steele paid sources who paid subsources, and whether Comey or the FBI knew that Fusion employed a former Russian intelligence officer who was (like Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort) were serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign power, in this case to help Russia fight Magnitsky sanctions.

The last question pertains to Fusion employee, Rinat Akhmetshin. In July 2016, Hermitage Capital Management filed a FARA complaint against him and number of other people alleging they were unregistered lobbyists for Prevezon Holdings, a Cyprus based firm that was seeking to push back against sanctions. The complaint alleges, among other things, that Akhmetshin is a former GRU officer, hired to generate negative publicity, and has been ” accused of organizing, on behalf of Russian oligarch Andrey Melnichenko, for the computers of International Mineral Resources to be hacked to steal “confidential, personal and otherwise sensitive information” so that it could be disseminated.”

Grassley surely raised the issue (as he also did in a March letter to Dana Boente in the latter’s role as Acting Attorney General) to accuse Steele’s associates of the same things Steele and others have accused Paul Manafort of (and Mike Flynn has admitted). But it seems an utterly valid issue in any case, not least because it raises questions of why Fusion brought in Steele when Akhmetshin could have collected Russian intelligence on Trump himself. Did he? If so, was that included in the parts of the dossier we haven’t seen. More importantly, was Akhmetshin still around when the dossier got leaked? Does he have any ongoing ties with Russia that might lead to the murder of sourced named in the dossier?

In today’s hearing, Grassley said that Fusion refused to cooperate with the questions he posed to them about the dossier. It seems the firms paid to compile that dossier are obfuscating on both sides of the Atlantic.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

4 replies
  1. Charles says:

    Grassley would have a little more cred if he hadn’t used his opening statement to berate and threaten the FBI over the Clinton e-mails and leaks, while avoiding any interest in the issues raised by Lawfare’s post.

    The questions of how and why Steele created and distributed the dossier are, of course, relevant. The committee ought to be asking them of Steele and perhaps Akhmetshin.  Maybe there are reasons they can’t, but it would be nice if we knew why.

     

    But whatever is the case about the dossier, it did not prevent Trump from getting elected. Steele’s decision to proceed with the work after the election makes it pretty clear that he wasn’t doing it as part of an oppo campaign… unless one buys into “Deep State” theories (conspiracy theories?) that the bureaucracy is trying to prevent rapprochement/deal making between the US and Russia.

     

    What Grassley focuses on as a complaint against Fusion is actually not against Fusion; only one named individual in the complaint, Glenn Simpson, is listed as associated with Fusion. Oddly, the complaint is not signed by an individual, but by “Hermitage Capital Management.” The complaint also lists Ron Dellums as a former Republican congressman; he was a Democrat.

     

    Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage, seems like he’s on the level. Sergei Magnitsky worked for Hermitage, and Browder seems to have taken his murder (not to mention various probable libels by Russian organizations against Browder) to heart.

     

    Skipping over the oddities in the Hermitage complaint, it wouldn’t be surprising if a firm like Fusion lobbied on both sides of the fence or hired people on both sides of the fence.

     

    Akhmetshin seems like the kind of person who plays both sides of the fence, and probably the middle as well. So the connection of Fusion to the complaint seems almost tangential to me, and if I were trying to do an investigation of the Russians, Akhmetshin seems like the last person I’d put in any kind of position where he could compromise sources.

     

    • Avattoir says:

      I watched and listened to Grassley ask “his” questions. The distinct impression received is that Grassley was READING questions framed by others. The goal of those questions clearly was to fit the Grassley narrative, of the Dossier being largely if not entirely “wild allegations” that have “been proven false”, and to set up some argument that the FBI – or, as Grassley stumbled over ‘his’ opening remarks – “the mefff … eff b i” are off on some sort of wild goose chase set up by … someone, may the Dems, butthurt by the election outcome.

      Yet, like Charles above, I read Lawfare’s articles on the Trump-Rus nexus, and the underlying documents, and I’ve even used the  underlying documents to remove the remaining arguable hyperbole from the Lawfare overview. And, of course, as long time (well over a decade) reader of emptywheel, I’ve read each of emptywheel’s several posts on the Dossier.

      There’s something there. It may be that whatever some think of the words “collusion” and conspiracy”, the various investigations aren’t going to turn up agreed upon, in-concert, like-minded or intentionally complementary acts of contract-like offers & acceptances, or trust-like adherences to form.  But there’s more than enough commonality & INVESTMENT to support that Trump & TrumpCo are compromised on Putin’s Russia & have been for months if not years, based largely on that most fungible of international language, cash. It smells like repeated, wide-ranging, if not actually system offenses of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and multiple instances of the quids have been advanced before the inevitable quos.

      So, in that vein, as I listen to Grassley, I hear questions framed to protect Trump, in particular the more-than-nominally Republican Trump administration, by going after the investigators, either to learn what the FBI & others have that the Trump  administration and the Republican Congress are going to try to kibosh, or to set up key players in the FBI or DoJ or both to shut that thing right down before it gets that far.

  2. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: More on the SS7 SMS security theatre
    (I.E., text-based 2FA is not trustable)

    You think 215, 702, and 12333 is bad?
    This is worse.

    https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/we-were-warned-about-flaws-in-the-mobile-data-backbone-for-years-now-2fa-is-screwed

    https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/rep-lieu-statement-hackers-draining-bank-accounts-ss7-flaw

    https://arstechnica.com/security/2017/05/thieves-drain-2fa-protected-bank-accounts-by-abusing-ss7-routing-protocol/

    Ted Lieu:

    Everyone’s accounts protected by text-based two-factor authentication, such as bank accounts, are potentially at risk until the FCC and telecom industry fix the devastating SS7 security flaw. Both the FCC and telecom industry have been aware that hackers can acquire our text messages and phone conversations just knowing our cell phone number. It is unacceptable the FCC and telecom industry have not acted sooner to protect our privacy and financial security. I urge the Republican-controlled Congress to hold immediate hearings on this issue.

    [Don’t hold your breath Ted. This kind of spying/hacking is big money. And the buyin to join the club is dirt cheap. Approx 1000 Euros. Your previous calls for action on SS7 have fallen on deaf ears. Your fellow congresscritters know where their bread is buttered. There is not and can not be any oversight of the abuse of SS7 because it is not really traceable to start with (worse than BGP hijacks – BGP hijacks are detectable). So your fellow congresscritters can keep their head in the sand, and even if you publically call them out on their lack of caring, they will just retort that there is nothing they can do. Even the FCC knows this is a problem, and look at how there are players trying to gut the FCC]

  3. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT: (Marcy, possibly useful ref)

    http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB590-Cyber-Vault-Highlights-from-The-National-Security-Archive/

    Washington, D.C., May 3, 2017 – A Rand Corporation 1967 paper predicted many of the cyber dilemmas faced by policy makers today, and a 2017 expanded analysis of the “GRIZZLY STEPPE” hacking by Russian cyber operators disclosed key findings about the techniques the hackers used and ways to mitigate them, according to the National Security Archive publication today of 40+ highlighted primary sources from the critically-praised “Cyber Vault” at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/cybervault.

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