The FBI is going to court to fight the public release of a small number of documents the State Department sent to agents from Christopher Steele, the British intelligence operative and Hillary Clinton-paid political muckraker, during the 2016 election.
Normally, such Freedom of Information Act cases don’t merit public attention. This one does.
To hear the FBI tell it, the release of former Deputy Assistant Secretary Kathleen Kavalec’s documents is tantamount to giving up the keys to President TrumpDonald John TrumpProfessor installs seesaws across US-Mexico border to form connection ‘on both sides’ What the world can expect from the Boris Johnson government Marianne Williamson: I am not a ‘wacky new-age nutcase’ MORE’s nuclear briefcase, aiding the enemy or assisting terrorists.
“We know that terrorist organizations and other hostile or foreign intelligence groups have the capacity and ability to gather information from myriad sources, analyze it and deduce means and methods from disparate details to defeat the U.S. government’s collection efforts,” an FBI assistant section chief swore in an affidavit supporting the request to keep the documents secret.
The FBI can’t afford to “jeopardize the fragile relationships that exist between the United States and certain foreign governments,” the FBI official declared in another dramatic argument against the conservative group Citizens United’s request to release the memos.
And if that wasn’t enough, the bureau actually claimed that “FBI special agents have privacy interests from unnecessary, unofficial questioning as to the conduct of investigations and other FBI business.”
In other words, agents don’t want to have to answer to the public, which pays their salary, when questions arise about the investigative work, as has happened in the Russia case.
The FBI’s July 10 court filing speaks volumes about Director Christopher Wray’s efforts to thwart the public understanding of what really happened in the FBI’s now-debunked Russia collusion probe.
Steele’s contacts at State can’t possibly be equated to the nation’s most sensitive secrets. The same research he provided to State and the FBI in fall 2016 was being provided to Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, and to the media.
In fact, Steele was fired from the FBI on Nov. 1, 2016, for leaking information. Any assumption of secrecy, privacy or classification is ludicrous. And a post-firing FBI analysis found most of Steele’s dossier was either wrong, could not be corroborated, or simply was made up of public source internet information. In other words, it was garbage intelligence.
On its face, the FBI’s behavior in the Citizens United case isn’t about protecting national security secrets. It’s about protecting the bureau’s reputation from revelations its agents knew derogatory information about Steele and his work before they used his dossier to support a surveillance warrant targeting the Trump campaign and failed to disclose that information to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
And that makes this court fight a waste of taxpayer dollars an unnecessary breach of public trust.
“Only through our litigation will the American people discover what the political operatives inside the Obama State Department and FBI were doing in 2016 with the fake Steele dossier before the FISA court,” said David N. Bossie, the president of Citizens United.
To better illustrate the folly of the FBI’s fight, let’s examine one document the bureau is fighting to keep secret in its entirety.
It’s a five-page memo that Kavalec downloaded from Steele from an internet storage site after meeting with him on Oct. 11, 2016. She sent it to then-FBI section chief Steven Laycock, now an assistant director, two days later.
The document, according to my sources who have seen it, lays out a theory that Steele and some liberals spread late in the 2016 campaign that unusual computer pings between a Trump Tower server and Alfa Bank in Russia might be a secret communication channel by which Trump and Vladimir Putin were hijacking the election.
The theory has been written about in the media. Kavalec downloaded the file from Steele via a commercial internet download service and transmitted it to Laycock on non-classified email.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who reviewed the document recently, wrote Attorney General William Barr last week saying the memo was “based on open source media reporting” and that the FBI’s claim that revealing it would harm sources and methods is “completely unfounded.”
In other words, it’s not the stuff intelligence laws were designed to protect.
Furthermore, the FBI investigated the theory and debunked it. Even the tight-lipped special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Kellyanne Conway: ‘I’d like to know’ if Mueller read his own report MORE went out of his way during testimony last week to say the Alfa Bank theory “is not true.”
So if Mueller could talk about it and the information was transmitted in a non-classified manner, why would the FBI go to such lengths to fight its release?
My sources say it’s because the State Department included notations on Steele’s five pages of research strongly calling into question his Alfa Bank theories before sending it to the FBI. In other words, they challenged the veracity and quality of Steele’s intelligence.
Under the FBI’s human source rules, a U.S. government’s negative assessment of an informer’s information would constitute “derogatory information” that would have to be disclosed to the FISC if Steele’s work was being used to support a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant.
Eight days after Kavalec sent Laycock her annotated version of Steele’s Alfa Bank research, the FBI submitted to the FISC an application that won the agency permission to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The bureau did not include State’s assessment. Instead, agents declared they possessed no derogatory information about Steele.
Such shenanigans happened on the watch of fired FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyChris Wray’s FBI continues to cover for Team Comey’s Russia shenanigans Louie Gohmert’s exchange with Robert Mueller revealed an uneasy relationship Mueller testimony draws nearly 13 million viewers, less than other high-profile hearings MORE, whose band of merry agents included supervisors Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe, both since fired for misconduct.
Wray took over the FBI long after such misdeeds occurred. But for some reason, his team has fought relentlessly to keep information secret from Congress and the public about Team Comey’s Russia case.
The House Intelligence Committee had to threaten it would issue a subpoena and go to court in summer 2018 before Wray gave up information about the bureau’s mistakes in the Russia probe. The Senate Judiciary Committee has not received a response to at least six letters it sent requesting FBI information in the Russia case dating to 2017.
Likewise, the FBI allowed text messages — some embarrassing — between Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page to be destroyed during the probe, blaming a software glitch. The Department of Justice inspector general was able to recover some of those texts after an extensive effort.
And when Kavalec’s documents were discovered recently, the FBI initially redacted the name of Laycock as recipient of the Steele information. It eventually released Laycock’s name and acknowledged it was wrong to hide his identity.
“The FBI mistakenly asserted Exemptions 6 and 7C to redact the name of the FBI executive,” the bureau sheepishly said in a footnote to its most recent court filing.
After Barr said he believed the FBI was spying on the Trump campaign, Wray questioned his boss’s assessment in public. “It’s not the term I would use,” Wray told Congress.
When the government gets stuff wrong, as it did in the Russia case on Comey’s watch, transparency is the best panacea for restoring public trust.
Claiming FBI agents have a privacy right to avoid facing hard questions, portraying public source documents as national secrets and doing the Muhammad Ali “rope-a-dope” dance to thwart disclosure is not an acceptable alternative.
It’s a lesson Chris Wray should learn, quickly.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.