A month before the 2016 presidential election, the FBI met Christopher Steele in Rome and apparently unlawfully shared with the foreign opposition researcher some of the bureau’s most closely held secrets, according to unpublicized disclosures in the recent Justice Department Inspector General report on abuses of federal surveillance powers.
What’s more, Steele, the former British spy who compiled the “dossier” of conspiracy theories for the Hillary Clinton campaign, was promised $15,000 to attend the briefing by FBI agents eager to maintain his cooperation in their Trump-Russia collusion investigation codenamed Crossfire Hurricane.
That investigation was so closely guarded that only a handful of top officials and agents at the FBI were allowed to know about it.
The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz details how a team of FBI agents in early October 2016 shared with Steele extensive classified materials, just weeks before the bureau cut off ties with him for leaking his own research to the media. The secrets included foreign intelligence information still considered so sensitive that the IG’s report refers to it even now only as coming from a “Friendly Foreign Government.” In fact, this is a reference to Australia. That country’s ambassador to Britain sent the United States a tip about loose talk by junior Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. The FBI has described that as the predicate for its Trump-Russia investigation.
The IG report also discloses that FBI agents knew Steele worked for Glenn Simpson, whose opposition research firm Fusion GPS was paying Steele to dig up dirt on Trump for the Clinton campaign, and that Steele informed the FBI that the “candidate” – Clinton herself – knew about Steele’s work. Steele did not keep to himself the classified material he had learned from the FBI. Shortly after the Rome meeting, Steele briefed Simpson on what the FBI had disclosed to him.
The FBI’s disclosures to Steele -- described on pages 114-115 and in footnote 513, and supported on pages 386-390 and footnotes 252 and 513, deep in Horowitz’s report – were violations of laws governing the handling of classified material, according to the Inspector General and experts in national security law who spoke with RealClearInvestigations.
The Department of Justice did not respond to questions from RealClearInvestigations. Steele and Simpson did not respond to interview requests placed with their offices.
The FBI’s decision to share classified information with a partisan operative and private foreign citizen is all the more curious because the team investigating figures associated with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump made extensive efforts to keep the very fact of Crossfire Hurricane a secret from their own colleagues at the bureau.
At the time, Crossfire Hurricane focused on four figures within Trump’s campaign circle – Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn -- and all four cases were officially labeled “Sensitive Investigative Matters.”
But the cloak of so-called SIM protection was deemed insufficient in this instance, because the investigation wasn’t just about subjects involved in a run-of-the-mill political campaign. FBI witnesses told the Inspector General that because the investigation involved “an ongoing presidential election campaign” the bureau took the further step of designating Crossfire Hurricane a “prohibited” case file. When an investigation is “prohibited,” its files can be accessed only by those who are officially working the case.
The other bureau jargon used by the Crossfire Hurricane team was to call the investigation “close-hold.” The goal, according to the Inspector General, was to “ensure information about the investigation remained known only to the team and FBI and Department [of Justice] officials.”
How, then, did Steele get past such high, razor-wired walls to gain access to this most tightly held information? It didn’t require any high-tech ”Mission Impossible” acrobatics. A team of FBI agents simply gave it to him.
Steele was no stranger to the FBI. He almost certainly would have had interactions with the bureau during his 22-year career in British intelligence. He cultivated it as a client when he started his own firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, in 2009.
In the book “Red Card,” an account of a corruption scandal involving soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, investigative reporter Ken Bensinger wrote that Steele “was always on the lookout for new business. The bureau, the retired spy knew, was known to be a gold-plated client.”
It was in the context of the FIFA investigation that Steele met FBI agent Michael Gaeta in 2010. Gaeta was in charge of a team fighting Russian organized crime. When the bureau’s reliance on the Steele dossier first became public in 2017, press reports claimed that Steele’s contributions to the soccer probe proved he was reliable. However, the IG report summarizes the views of a case agent and a prosecutor who said, “Steele did not have any role in the [FIFA] investigation itself, he did not provide court testimony, and his information did not appear in any indictments, search warrants, or other court filings.”
Nonetheless, between 2014 and 2016, Steele collected $95,000 from the bureau for his work on the FIFA case and reports on corruption in Russia and Ukraine.
His paymaster was Gaeta, referred to in the Horowitz report as “Handling Agent 1.” So when Steele and Simpson decided to approach the FBI to promote a conspiracy theory about Trump and Russia, Gaeta was the natural contact. Steele met with Gaeta in London on July 5, 2016 and presented him with a tantalizing preview of the “dossier.” This first installment included the lurid “pee tape” story – the salacious rumor that Trump had paid Russian prostitutes to urinate on a Moscow hotel bed the Obamas had slept on.
By September Steele had given the FBI the bulk of his Trump-Russia reports. That led to the meeting in Rome on October 3 between Steele and several agents from the Crossfire Hurricane team, as the IG report describes them: “Case Agent 2,” a “Supervisory Intel Analyst,” and an “Acting Section Chief,” together with Gaeta.
Much of the public reporting regarding this meeting has focused on the information Steele shared with the FBI – and the many reasons agents should have doubted its credibility. But largely neglected has been the opposite side of the equation – what the FBI told Steele. The Inspector General reports that the bureau revealed to him much of the highly classified information that it had gathered regarding alleged Trump-Russia links.
The FBI had every reason to expect Steele to share information with Glenn Simpson, whose client was the Clinton campaign. Steele claims to have been “candid” with Gaeta about who was writing the checks for his Trump-Russia research. Steele took notes of the July 5 meeting he had with the “handling agent.” According to the Horowitz report, those notes state that Steele told Gaeta "Democratic Party associates" were funding his Fusion GPS work, that the "ultimate client" was the Clinton campaign, and that "the candidate," as the IG report puts it, “was aware of Steele's reporting.”
But by the fall, the Crossfire Hurricane team was so eager to lock in access to Steele’s ongoing “reporting” that they were willing to offer the former spy inducements. Steele said the FBI didn’t want him to share his election intelligence with other U.S. government agencies or with any of his private clients except for Fusion GPS. Gaeta said it was a reasonable request given that Steele "was now being offered compensation to go forward from the United States government" -- compensation such as the $15,000 he had been told he would be paid for attending the meeting in Rome.
More significantly, Steele received highly classified information.
In a meeting that lasted nearly three hours, according to the IG report, “Case Agent 2” gave Steele a “general overview” of Crossfire Hurricane as well as more granular details of the cases being developed against Page, Papadopoulos, Manafort, and Flynn. All of that information – especially a “Friendly Foreign Government's” communication with Washington – is classified, the IG report states. This alarmed Gaeta, who deemed it “peculiar” to give Steele an overview of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, let alone “providing names of persons related to the investigation.” The Supervisory Intel Analyst was also alarmed, according to the IG report, and “notified his supervisor about his concern” once back in Washington.
It didn’t take long for those secrets to get passed on to Simpson. “Crime in Progress,” Simpson’s recent book about the Trump-Russia affair, co-authored with Fusion co-founder Peter Fritsch, relates that “Steele briefed him on what had happened at the meeting” in Rome, including the FBI's disclosure that it was investigating Papadopoulos.
In footnote 513, the IG report states investigators “examined whether the FBI disclosed classified information to Steele.” The Inspector General “determined that Case Agent 2 did so when he discussed information with Steele that the FBI received from the FFG, and that he did not have prior authorization to make the disclosure.”
This is no small matter. “Sharing classified information with anyone not authorized to receive it is a crime,” says Sean Bigley, an attorney specializing in national security law. “But sharing classified information with a non-U.S. citizen not authorized to receive it is also the very definition of harm to national security.”
Instead of recommending Case Agent 2 for any prosecution or punishment, the IG report offers possible explanations for the agent’s behavior. One is that the agent had been “given significant latitude from his supervisors to frame his discussions with Steele.” Another is that the “Case Agent believed he had authorization to discuss classified information with Steele based on prior discussion with his supervisors.” But the report suggests no effort by the IG’s office to determine how and why the agent could have believed that. Another explanation offered is that a Counterintelligence Division Section Chief “was present when Case Agent 2 made the disclosure,” the Horowitz report states, “and the CD Section Chief did not voice objection to it at the time or afterward.”
The Inspector General's office treats the section chief’s presence as tacit permission for Case Agent 2 to disclose classified information. But this rationale also cuts the other way: If the disclosure of highly classified material was not just the careless act of a rogue agent, then was it FBI policy? If so, who made that decision?
An earlier footnote, number 252, states, “FBI Security staff told us [the IG’s office] that the Assistant Director for CD [Counterintelligence Division] can authorize the disclosure of classified information.” Is there a record this authorization was granted? RealClearInvestigations provided written questions to the Inspector General's office. RCI asked whether the IG had identified “any law, rule, or regulations giving the Asst. Director the power to authorize disclosure” of classified material?
Office of the Inspector General spokesperson Stephanie M. Logan declined to comment.
For there to be declassification or authorization to share classified material, “typically there would have to be a record,” says Robert Eatinger, former Senior Deputy General Counsel at the CIA. The IG did not report finding any such record.
Even if there were paperwork, the FBI may not be in a position to declassify anything and everything it chooses. “The FBI assumes they have a lot more authority than they do,” says Eatinger. For example, if a given piece of information is classified by the CIA, the FBI does not have authority unilaterally to declassify it.
The IG report raises the possibility that the FBI might be excused given the need to manage its Confidential Human Sources. After all, if a CHS is going to look for information on the targets of an investigation, he needs to know who the targets are. But even if there were some automatic security clearance for anyone who acts as a CHS, that wouldn’t explain away the breach. The IG report concludes that, from Steele’s initial July 2016 meeting with his handling agent, “it was clear that Steele was operating as a businessperson working on behalf of a client of his firm, rather than as a CHS for the FBI.” Days before the presidential election, the bureau made it official that Steele was not a CHS. He was “closed” as a source on Nov. 1, 2016, after the FBI learned he had been sharing his own research with the press.
Beyond Steele’s connections to Simpson and Clinton, the Crossfire Hurricane team should have had other concerns about sharing classified information regarding their Trump-Russia probe with him. They had reason to believe that Steele’s other clients included the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin.
To appreciate the magnitude of the FBI’s breach of the rules governing classified materials, consider how the bureau’s former Director James Comey and former General Counsel James Baker have used classification to limit what Michael Horowitz was able to ask them. Comey and Baker “chose not to request that their security clearances be reinstated for their OIG interviews,” the Inspector General writes. “Therefore, we were unable to provide classified information or documents to them during their interviews to develop their testimony, or to assist their recollections of relevant events.”
The idea that the FBI is gratuitously sharing classified information with a foreign informant is rather extraordinary, says lawyer Bigley. “If one of my clients did this, they would be stripped of their security clearance, out of a job, and probably facing indictment.”