Above, Igor Danchenko, the Steele dossier's "primary sub-source."
By Eric Felten, RealClearInvestigations
September 25, 2020
The FBI long suspected that a major source for Christopher Steele’s anti-Trump dossier was a Russian spy, according to newly declassified documents. In other words, the bureau knowingly relied on the word of a suspected Russian spy to spy on a Trump campaign aide wrongly smeared as a Russian spy: Carter Page.
Republicans seized on the disclosure. Rep. Devin Nunes told RealClearInvestigations: “The revelations are further proof of what we already knew – that the Democrats, and only the Democrats, colluded with Russians to swing the 2016 election.”
The material declassified by Attorney General William Barr shows that as far back as 2009 the FBI was investigating as a potential Russian intelligence operative the Brookings Institution researcher who in 2016 would become the dossier's "primary sub-source." He was identified by RealClearInvestigations this past summer as Igor Danchenko, 42, who confessed to the FBI in 2017 that his dossier fabrications were largely inspired by gossip and bar talk among him and his drinking buddies, most of whom were childhood friends from Russia.
The bureau used the now-debunked dossier based on Danchenko's falsehoods in four applications before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to spy on Page – and people Page communicated with.
Democrats including Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chariman, had long described the dossier – which was opposition research paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign – as credible, and said its claims demanded a broader investigation of Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia.
But according to Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on Department of Justice abuses of FISA court applications, “Steele himself was not the originating source of any of the factual information in his reporting.” Instead, Steele turned to the “primary sub-source” to bring him information supposedly gathered from a network of highly placed Russian sources.
And the FBI surely knew Danchenko was probably not one to trust, according to a newly “unclassified summary of classified investigative case file reports” provided by the Justice Department to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham. It says the FBI commenced its Trump-Russia investigation "based on information by the FBI indicating that the Primary Sub-source may be a threat to national security."
It also details the FBI's earlier Danchenko spy investigation, begun when he was at Brookings, working with Fiona Hill, who would later work for the State Department in Ukraine and testify at President Trump’s impeachment hearings.
Two junior researchers at “a prominent U.S. think tank,” the summary says -- read, Brookings -- were at a “work-related event in late 2008,” sitting at a table when they were approached by a fellow researcher -- Danchenko. What followed was a remarkably bold, if clumsy, invitation to join a criminal conspiracy. Late 2008, of course, was the transition time to the incoming Obama administration. Danchenko made a proposition to the two at the table: If either “did get a job in the government and had access to classified information” and wanted “to make a little extra money,” he “knew some people to whom they could speak.”
Word of this conversation made it to the FBI months later and the bureau launched a preliminary investigation into Danchenko (who is opaquely referred to in the DoJ summary as “the employee”). One of the co-workers propositioned by Danchenko expressed “suspicion of the employee” to the FBI, going so far as to entertain “the possibility that the employee might actually be a Russian spy.”
The FBI converted its Danchenko probe into a full investigation. The bureau found he was “an associate of two FBI counterintelligence subjects” and discovered that he “had contact in 2006 with the Russian Embassy and known Russian intelligence officers.”
The summary suggests that the FBI had a bug on at least one of those Russians, since the bureau has extensive accounts of the conversations the intelligence officer had with Danchenko:
[T]he Russian Intelligence Officer invited the Primary Sub-source to the Russian Embassy to see his office. The Primary Sub-source told the Russian Intelligence Officer that he/she was interested in entering the Russian diplomatic service one day. The two discussed a time when the Primary Sub-source was to visit. Four days later, the Russian Intelligence Officer contacted the Primary Sub-source and informed him/her they could meet that day to work “on the documents and then think about future plans.” Later in October 2006, the Primary Sub-source contacted the Russian Intelligence Officer seeking a reply “so the documents can be placed in tomorrow’s diplomatic mail pouch.”
The FBI did some asking around and interviewed at least one person who had been troubled by how Danchenko “persistently asked about the interviewee’s knowledge of a particular military vessel.”
By July 2010, the FBI was applying for a FISA warrant to put Danchenko under surveillance. But before the FISA application was approved, Danchenko left the U.S. The FBI closed the investigation.
Come the end of 2016, the Crossfire Hurricane team at the FBI knew that Danchenko was the source of Christopher Steele’s extraordinary allegations. The Crossfire crew also knew of the 2009 investigation that gathered evidence Danchenko was a Russian spy.
And yet, even with reason to suspect that the materials produced by Danchenko were Russian disinformation, the FBI agents investigating the Trump campaign continued to treat the Steele dossier as if it were something to be believed.
RealClearInvestigations asked Danchenko's lawyer, Mark Schamel, whether his client is or has ever been a Russian agent. “As every objective investigation has shown,” Schamel said, “Mr. Danchenko is an exceptional analyst who is truthful and credible.”