Above, Brian J. Auten, the FBI analyst who vetted applications to spy on Carter Page, has taught a course on spying ethics at Patrick Henry College since 2010.
By Paul Sperry, RealClearInvestigations
July 10, 2020
The unnamed FBI “Supervisory Intelligence Analyst” cited by the Justice Department's watchdog for failing to properly vet the so-called Steele dossier before it was used to justify spying on the Trump campaign teaches a class on the ethics of spying at a small Washington-area college, records show.
The senior FBI analyst, Brian J. Auten, has taught the course at Patrick Henry College since 2010, including the 11-month period in 2016 and 2017 when he and a counterintelligence team at FBI headquarters electronically monitored an adviser to the Trump campaign based on false rumors from the dossier and forged evidence.
Auten, identified by congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, never confirmed the most explosive allegations in the dossier compiled by ex-British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, cutting a number of corners in the verification process, Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz pointed out in his December report on FBI abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
By January 2017, the lead analyst had ample evidence the dossier was bogus. Auten could not get sources who provided information to Steele to support the dossier’s allegations during interviews. And collections from the wiretaps of Trump aide Carter Page failed to reveal any confirmation of the claims. Auten even came across exculpatory evidence indicating Page was not the Russian asset the dossier alleged, but was in fact a CIA asset helping the U.S. spy on Moscow.
Nonetheless, he and the FBI continued to use the Steele material as a basis for renewing their FISA monitoring of Page, who was never charged with a crime.
Auten did not respond to requests for comment, and the FBI declined to comment.
In his report, Horowitz wrote that the analyst told his team of inspectors that he did not have any “pains or heartburn” over the accuracy of the Steele reports. As for Steele’s reliability as an FBI informant, Horowitz said, the analyst merely “speculated" that his prior reporting was sound and did not see a need to “dig into” his handler’s case file, which showed that past tips from Steele had gone uncorroborated and were never used in court.
According to the IG report, Auten also wasn’t concerned about Steele’s anti-Trump bias or that his work was commissioned by Trump’s political opponent, calling the fact he worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign “immaterial.” Perhaps most disturbing, the analyst withheld the fact that Steele’s main source disavowed key dossier allegations from a memo Auten prepared summarizing a meeting he had with that source.
Auten appears to have violated his own stated “golden rule” for spying. A 15-year supervisor at the bureau, Auten has written that he teaches students in his national security class at the Purcellville, Va., college that the FBI applies “the least intrusive standard” when it considers surveilling U.S. citizens under investigation to avoid harm to “a subject’s reputation, dignity and privacy.”
At least three Senate oversight committees are seeking to question Auten about fact-checking lapses, as well as “grossly inaccurate statements” he allegedly made to Horowitz, as part of the committee’s investigation of the FBI’s handling of wiretap warrants the bureau first obtained during the heat of the 2016 presidential race.
FBI veterans worry Auten’s numerous missteps signal a deeper rot within the bureau beyond top brass who appeared to have an animus toward Donald Trump, such as former FBI Director James Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe, as well as subordinates Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. They fear these main players in the scandal enlisted group-thinking career officials like Auten to ensure an investigative result.
“Anyone in his position has tremendous access to information and is well-positioned to manipulate information if he wanted to do so,” said Chris Swecker, a 24-year veteran of the FBI who served as assistant director of its criminal investigative division, where he oversaw public corruption cases.
“Question is, was it deliberate manipulation or just rank incompetence?” he added. “How much was he influenced by McCabe, Page, Strzok and other people we know had a deep inherent bias?”
Auten is a central, if overlooked, figure in the Horowitz report and the overall FISA abuse scandal, though his identity is hidden in the 478-page IG report, which refers to him throughout only as “Supervisory Intelligence Analyst” or “Supervisory Intel Analyst.” In fact, the 51-year-old analyst shows up at every major juncture in the FISA application process.
Auten was assigned to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation from its opening in July 2016 and supervised its analytical efforts throughout 2017. He played a key supportive role for the agents preparing the FISA applications, including reviewing the probable-cause section of the applications and providing the agents with information about Steele’s sub-sources noted in the applications. He also helped prepare and review the renewal drafts.
Auten assisted the case agents in providing information on the reliability of Steele and his sources and reviewing for accuracy their information cited in the body of the applications, as well as all the footnotes. His job was also to fill gaps in the FISA application or bolster weak areas.
In addition, Auten personally met with Steele and his “primary sub-source,” reportedly a Russian émigré living in the West, as well as former MI6 colleagues of Steele. He also met with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and processed the dirt Ohr fed the FBI from Glenn Simpson, the political opposition research contractor who hired Steele to compile the anti-Trump dossier on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
Auten was involved in the January 2017 investigation of then-Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to internal emails sent by then-FBI counterintelligence official Strzok.
What’s more, the analyst helped draft a summary of the dossier attached to the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian interference, which described Steele as “reliable.” Other intelligence analysts argued against incorporating the dossier allegations — including rumors about potentially compromising sexual material — in the body of the report because they viewed them as “internet rumor."
According to the IG report, "The Supervisory Intel Analyst was one of the FBI's leading experts on Russia.” Auten wrote a book on the Russian nuclear threat during the Cold War, and has taught graduate courses about U.S. and Russian nuclear strategy.
Still, he could not corroborate any of the allegations of Russian “collusion" in the dossier, which he nonetheless referred to as “Crown material,” as if it were intelligence from America’s closest ally, Britain.
To the contrary, "According to the Supervisory Intel Analyst, the FBI ultimately determined that some of the allegations contained in Steele's election reporting were inaccurate,” the IG report revealed. Yet the analyst and the case agents he supported continued to rely on his dossier to obtain the warrants to spy on Page -- and by extension, potentially the Trump campaign and presidency -- through incidental collections of emails, text messages and intercepted phone calls.
Steele Got the Benefit of the Doubt
According to the IG report, the supervisory intelligence analyst not only failed to corroborate the Steele dossier, but gave Steele the benefit of the doubt every time sources or developments called into question the reliability of his information or his own credibility. In many cases, he acted more as an advocate than a fact-checker, while turning a blind eye to the dossier’s red flags. Examples:
- When a top Justice national security lawyer initially blocked the Crossfire team’s attempts to obtain a FISA warrant, Auten proactively turned to the dossier to try to push the case over the line. In an email to FBI lawyers, he forwarded an unsubstantiated claim from Steele's Report 94 that Page secretly met with a Kremlin-tied official in July 2016, and asked, "Does this put us at least *that* much closer to a full FISA on [Carter Page]?" (Emphasis in original).
- Even though internal FBI emails reveal Auten knew Steele was working for the Clinton campaign by early January 2017, he did not share this information with the Justice lawyer or the FISA court before helping agents reapply for warrants. He told the IG he viewed the potential for political influences on the Steele reporting as “immaterial.”
- While most of Steele’s past reporting as an informant for the FBI had not been corroborated and had never been used in a criminal proceeding, including his work for an international soccer corruption investigation, Auten wrote that it had in fact been "corroborated and used in criminal proceedings.” His language made it into the FISA renewal applications to help convince the court Steele was still reliable, despite his leaking the FBI’s investigation to media outlet Mother Jones in late October 2016. Auten had merely “speculated” that Steele’s prior reporting was sound without reviewing an internal file documenting his track record.
- Auten’s notes from a meeting with Steele in early October 2016 reveal that Steele described one of his main dossier sources — identified in the IG report only as "Person 1,” but believed to be Belarusian-American realtor Sergei Millian — as a "boaster" who "may engage in some embellishment.” Yet the IG report noted the analyst "did not provide this description of Person 1 for inclusion in the Carter Page FISA applications despite relying on Person 1's information to establish probable cause in the applications."
- Auten failed to disclose to the FISA court negative feedback from British intelligence service colleagues of Steele. They told Auten during a visit he made to London in December 2016 that Steele exercised "poor judgment” and pursued as sources "people with political risk but no intel value,” the IG report said.
- In January 2017, Steele's primary sub-source told Auten that Steele "misstated or exaggerated” information he conveyed to him in multiple sections of the dossier, according to a lengthy summary of the interview by the analyst. For instance, Steele claimed that Kremlin-tied figures offered Page a bribe worth as much as $10 billion in return for lifting U.S. economic sanctions on Russia. "We reviewed the texts [between Steele and the source] and did not find any discussion of a bribe,” the IG report found. Still, Auten let the rumor bleed into the FISA applications.
- The primary sub-source also told the analyst he did not recall any discussion or mention of WikiLeaks conspiring with Moscow to publish hacked Democratic National Committee emails, or that the Russian leadership and the Trump campaign had a "well-developed conspiracy of cooperation,” as described by Steele in his Report 95. The primary sub-source “did not describe a ‘conspiracy' between Russia and individuals associated with the Trump campaign or state that Carter Page served as an ‘intermediary' between [the campaign] and the Russian government,” the IG found. Yet "all four Carter Page FISA applications relied on Report 95 to support probable cause."
- In addition, Auten's summary of the primary sub-source cast doubt on the dossier’s allegation that the disclosure of DNC emails to WikiLeaks was made in exchange for a GOP convention platform change regarding Ukraine. Yet this unsubstantiated rumor also found its way into the applications. Confronted by Horowitz’s investigators about all the discrepancies, the analyst offered excuses for Steele. He said that while it was possible that Steele exaggerated or misrepresented information he received from the source, it was also possible the source was lying to the FBI.
- Even though the primary sub-source’s account contradicted the allegations in Steele’s reporting, the supervisory intel analyst said he did not have any "pains or heartburn" about the accuracy of the Steele reporting.
- Auten didn’t try to get to the bottom of discrepancies between Steele and his sources until two months after the third and final renewal application was filed. The analyst’s September 2017 interview with Steele revealed clear bias against Trump. According to the FBI's FD-302 summary of the interview, Steele and his London business partner, Christopher Burrows, who was also present, described Trump as their "main opponent" and said that they were "fearful" about the negative impact of the Trump presidency on the relationship between the United States and Britain.
- The analyst also appeared to mislead, or at least misinform, the FBI’s counterintelligence chief, Bill Priestap, by omitting the primary sub-source’s claim that Steele “exaggerated" much of the information in the dossier. In late February 2017, Auten sent a two-page memo to Priestap briefing him about his meeting with the source, “but the memorandum did not describe the inconsistencies,” the IG report noted.
- Finally, recently declassified footnotes in the IG report directly contradict statements provided by Auten in the IG report concerning the potential for Russian disinformation infiltrating Steele’s reporting. The analyst told Horowitz’s team that “he had no information as of June 2017 that Steele’s election reporting source network had been penetrated or compromised [by Russian intelligence].” Yet, in January 2017, the FBI received a report that some of Steele’s reporting “was part of a Russian disinformation campaign” and in February 2017, the FBI received a second report that another part of Steele’s reporting was “the product of [Russian Intelligence Services] infiltrat[ing] a source into the network.”
Senators Want to Question Auten
Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley recently questioned the analyst’s candor and integrity in a letter to the FBI. "We are deeply troubled by the grossly inaccurate statements by the supervisory intelligence analyst,” they wrote.
The powerful senators have asked the FBI to provide additional records shedding light on what the analyst and other officials knew about Russian disinformation as they were drafting the FISA applications.
Meanwhile, Auten’s name appears on a list of witnesses Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham recently gained authorization to subpoena to testify before his own panel investigating the FISA abuse scandal. Graham intends to focus on the investigators, including the lead analyst, who interviewed Steele’s primary sub-source in January 2017 and discovered the Steele allegations were nothing more than “bar talk,” as Graham put it in a recent interview, and should never have been used to get a warrant in the first place, to say nothing of renewing the warrant.
In a Dec. 6 letter to Horowitz, FBI Director Christopher Wray informed the inspector general he had put every employee involved in the 2016-2017 FISA application process through “additional training in ethics.” The mandatory training included “an emphasis on privacy and civil liberties.”
Wray also assured Horowitz that he was conducting a review of all FBI personnel who had responsibility for the preparation of the FISA warrant applications and would take any appropriate action to deal with them.
It’s not immediately known if Auten has undergone such a review or has completed the required ethics training. The FBI declined comment.
“That analyst needs to be investigated internally,” Swecker said.
Auten appears to have violated the ethics training he provides his students at Patrick Henry College.
“When I teach the topic of national security investigations to undergraduates, we cover micro-proportionality, discrimination, and the 'least intrusive standard' via a tweaked version of the Golden Rule — namely, if you were being investigated for a national security issue but you knew yourself to be completely innocent, how would you want someone to investigate you?” Auten wrote in a September 2016 article in Providence magazine, headlined “Just Intelligence, Just Surveillance & the Least Intrusive Standard.”
He wrote the six-page paper to answer the question: "Is an intelligence operation, national security investigation or act of surveillance being initiated under the proper authorities for the right purposes? Will an intelligence operation, national security investigation or act of surveillance achieve the good it is meant to? And, in the end, will the expected good be overwhelmed by the resulting harm or damage arising out of the planned operation, investigation or surveillance act?"
“National security investigations are not ethics-free,” he asserted, advising that a federal investigator should never forget that “the intrusiveness or invasiveness of his tactics places a subject’s reputation, dignity and privacy at risk and has the ability to cause harm.”
At the same time, Auten said more intrusive methods such as electronic eavesdropping may be justified -- “If it is judged that the threat is severe or the targeted foreign intelligence is of key importance to U.S. interest or survival.” National security “may necessitate collection based on little more than suspicion.” In these cases, he reasoned, the harm to the individual is outweighed by the benefit to society.
“Surveillance is not life-threatening to the surveilled,” he said.
However, Page, a U.S. citizen, told RealClearInvestigations that he received "numerous death threats" from people who believed he was a “traitor,” based on leaks to the media that the FBI suspected he was a Russian agent who conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election.
Auten also rationalized the risk of “incidental” surveillance of non-targeted individuals, writing: "If the particular act of surveillance is legitimately authorized, and the non-liable subject has not been intentionally targeted, any incidental surveillance of the non-liable subject would be morally licit.”
A member of the International Intelligence Ethics Association, Auten has lectured since 2010 on “intelligence and statecraft” at Patrick Henry College, where he is an adjunct professor. He also sits on the college’s Strategic Intelligence Advisory Board.
FBI veterans say the analyst’s lack of rigor raises alarms.
“I worked with intel analysts all the time working counterintelligence investigations,” said former FBI Special Agent Michael Biasello, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who spent 10 years in counterintelligence. “This analyst’s work product was shoddy, and inasmuch as these FISA affidavits concerned a presidential campaign, the information he provided [to agents] should have been pristine.”
He suspects Auten was “hand-picked” by Comey or McCabe to work on the sensitive Trump case, which was tightly controlled within FBI headquarters.
“The Supervisory Intel Analyst must be held accountable now, particularly where his actions were intentional, along with anyone who touched those fraudulent [FISA] affidavits,” Biasello said.