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President Trump, the silent Briton and the Russian spy

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IN August 2016, the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the election campaign (‘Crossfire Hurricane’) incorporated allegations of a conspiracy between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The FBI’s sole source for these allegations was a Briton by the name of Christopher Steele. And he was supplying dirt for which he had already been paid by agents of the Democratic Party.

Last December, the US Department of Justice’s Inspector General released a report of nearly 500 pages after examining more than 1million documents and more than 100 witnesses including Steele. Parts of this report were redacted. The redactions and other evidence have been steadily declassified since then. Late last month a new tranche of information was declassified.

These declassifications show that Steele’s primary source ­­– a Ukrainian-born Russian lawyer, Igor Danchenko – was a suspected spy. He worked at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington from 2005 to 2010. In late 2008, he approached a colleague with an offer to make money selling classified information. The colleague was a researcher for ‘an influential foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration’.

This approach prompted FBI counter-intelligence agents to investigate. They established that Danchenko was associating with two other subjects of counter-intelligence, as well as staff and Russian intelligence officers at the Russian Embassy, since at least 2005. In 2006, Danchenko discussed with a Russian intelligence officer entering Russia’s diplomatic service. Days later, he was supplying documents for diplomatic despatch to Russia. The FBI sought to keep watch on Danchenko in 2010, but he returned to Russia within two months. Consequently, the investigation was closed in 2011.

In January, March, and May 2017, the FBI interviewed Danchenko (presumably informally, on promise of no charges) about Steele’s dossier. From the start, the FBI found multiple inconsistencies with Steele’s reports. For instance, whereas Steele reported that a Russian official had corroborated Trump’s engagement in weird sexual practices with Russian prostitutes, Danchenko said it was rumour. Danchenko explicitly contradicted Steele’s allegation of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’.

Steele had admitted to Crossfire Hurricane that a secondary source was a ‘boaster’ and an ‘egoist’ who ‘may engage in some embellishment’. The FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into that person in September 2016.

Steele’s handling agent told the Inspector General that s/he realised upon receipt of Steele’s reports in July 2016 that they were politically motivated. The supervisor of the intelligence squad within Crossfire Hurricane concluded the same. Steele’s longest-running friend in the FBI told the Crossfire Hurricane team that Steele was ‘desperate that Donald Trump [should] not get elected and was passionate about him not being the US President’.

Along the way, Steele leaked information to the press and hid much from the FBI, prompting the FBI to terminate his status as a confidential human source in November 2016.

In May 2019, a judicial investigation was started into the government’s handling of the allegations of a Russia-Trump conspiracy. This is led by John Durham, who has good bipartisan ethos. He is a US Attorney who under the George W Bush administration led investigations into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of ‘enhanced interrogations’ and under the Obama administration into the CIA’s alleged torture.

Durham has informally indicated many persons of interest. One of them is Steele, who has refused to co-operate. Durham’s role in declassifying information on Steele’s dossier suggests that Durham is interested in provoking witnesses to come forward with more evidence.

Even earlier, the chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, wanted Steele criminally investigated. Graham is a Republican and a supporter of the President’s re-election, but has the bipartisan appeal of criticising Trump during the 2015 and 2016 campaigns (for nomination and President respectively), declining to vote for him in November 2016, and criticising his policy on Syria in 2019.

Graham referred the matter in January 2018, before he became chairman, but with the support of the then chairman. At the time, he could not disclose the information that justified his referral. The latest declassifications are responses to Graham’s requests. The Attorney General’s cover letter to Graham explains that Durham recommended public disclosure of the counter-intelligence investigation into Danchenko because ‘the information will not interfere with his criminal investigation’.

On Sunday Graham told Fox News that he would be shocked if officials of the FBI and Department of Justice were not indicted. He hinted at other targets: ‘There’s a day of reckoning coming, just stay tuned, and there’s more coming, there’s something else coming, more damning than this, believe it or not.’ This might refer to either Steele or Hillary Clinton, who, in the same week, was revealed by declassifications to have approved a campaign in July 2016 to tie Trump to Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Either way, the Fox News host told viewers that her sources do not expect Durham to conclude until after the presidential election in November. What politicians do with Durham’s report will vary greatly with which party controls government in January 2021. The British government, too, will have a say on any indictment of a British former spy.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism. He is @riskyscientistson Parler.

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