We know that over the years from at least 2009 the FBI had been in periodic contact with Steele, beginning with the FIFA case. Our first publicly documented contact with Steele in this Russia Hoax occurred when the FBI's Michael Gaeta (working for the FBI's Rome Legat office) traveled to London on July 5, 2016, and obtained the first two Steele reports that later featured in Steele's "dossier." We don't know to whom Gaeta sent that reporting, but given that the Trump campaign was the subject of the "reports" it should have gone pretty much straight to the top of the FBI chain of command--at least to the Deputy Director, Andy McCabe, if not to Comey himself. The next FBI contact with Steele came later that same month, July 2016.
To my mind, the most plausible supposition is that the FBI, which we know had for months been targeting advisers to the Trump campaign (Carter Page, Papadopoulos, etc.) was now prepared for further communications from Steele. It seems likely that Gaeta would have asked Steele--whom he had known and worked with for years and apparently trusted--to keep in touch with future developments. Given that Gaeta had traveled from Rome to London to meet Steele, the FBI's interest should have been obvious. Also, given that Gaeta had to get approval for the trip from Rome (remember, the FBI has a large Legat office in London that could have met with Steele) from Victoria Nuland at the State Department, Gaeta must have had a fairly good idea as to the topic he'd be discussing with Steele in order to justify the trip. For what it's worth, however, the WaPo has provided Steele's version of events.
Following Steele's July 5 meeting with Gaeta ...
"Later that month, Steele reached out to a State Department contact in Washington, according to Nuland, who said officials decided his allegations were best left to the FBI.
In late July, Steele told friends he was rattled when WikiLeaks released thousands of internal Democratic National Committee emails on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, material that U.S. law enforcement officials said was hacked by Russia. Then Trump — who had repeatedly praised Putin on the campaign trail — publicly called on Russia to hack and release a cache of missing Clinton emails. [This is, of course, a false characterization of what Trump said.]
Steele, who had researched Russian attempts to interfere in European elections for another client, began to fear that the Americans were not taking the Kremlin’s efforts seriously enough, associates said.
In the early fall, he and Burrows [Chris Burrows, another "former" MI6 operative, and Steele's partner at Orbis Business Intelligence] turned to Dearlove, their former MI6 boss, for advice. Sitting in winged chairs at the Garrick Club, one of London’s most venerable private establishments, under oil paintings of famed British playwrights, the two men shared their worries about what was happening in the United States. They asked for his guidance about how to handle their obligations to their client and the public, Dearlove recalled. [God, is that priceless or what? Sitting in winged chairs under oil paintings of famed playwrights discussing their obligations to the public--I mean to say! How much more high minded does it get? You'd almost think Steele was volunteering his services to Fusion GPS!]
Dearlove said their situation reminded him of a predicament he had faced years earlier, when he was chief of station for British intelligence in Washington and alerted U.S. authorities to British information that a vice presidential hopeful had once been in communication with the Kremlin.
He said he advised Steele and Burrows to work discreetly with a top British government official to pass along information to the FBI." [So Steele had multiple masters: the FBI, the British government, his client--even, God help them, the public! It seems terribly promiscuous, but one assumes that that came naturally to Steele.]
Let's follow this out a little bit, to see if we can fill in some of the details of how this worked.
According to Steele, he first approached a State Department contact with Steele's "reports"--probably Jonathan Winer:
An official at former President Obama’s State Department has confirmed a claim made by Republicans that former British spy Christopher Steele and allies of Hillary Clinton gave him intelligence reports claiming that President Trump was compromised by the Russians.
The "reports" Steele was offering appear to have been the first two reports that later became part of his "dossier". Here's the synopsis of the first report, as it pertains to Trump:
- Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for
at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and
divisions in western alliance
- So far TRUMP has declined various sweetener real estate business deals
offered him in Russia in order to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him.
However he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of
intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other
- Former top Russian intelligence officer claims FSB has compromised
TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to
blackmail him. According to several knowledgeable sources, his conduct
in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been
arranged/monitored by the FSB
Winer apparently tried to interest Victoria Nuland in Steele's "reports," but Nuland--at that time Ass't Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs--decided to send the material to the FBI.
Here I'm speculating. I would ask: Who would Nuland--an expert on Russian matters--likely reach out to at the FBI? She could, of course, reach out to FBI Counterintelligence officials, but right near the top of the FBI's chain of command was Andy McCabe, whose professional obsession was Russian organized crime. In fact, McCabe, beginning in 2003, had headed the FBI's NY Task Force on Eurasian Organized Crime, and as in most areas the New York FBI's program on Eurasian Organized Crime would have been ground zero for everything to do with Russian organized crime. I think it's possible, even likely, that Nuland had met McCabe in that connection and would reach out to him with the Steele reports.
There's another reason why I believe McCabe was involved at this early stage. Michael Gaeta was a member of McCabe's Task Force and succeeded McCabe as leader when McCabe moved on, following his career trajectory.
Now, you can read about the FBI's International Affairs Division here. The important thing to keep in mind is that this Division operates the Legal Attache Program, or the Legat Program. Legats are FBI agents who are stationed overseas and are attached to US Embassies. Presumably they're fully occupied at their duty stations and don't go flying around the world for trivial reasons to territories that are handled by other Legat offices--otherwise there'd be no point in the whole program. This is what Legats do:
Typical duties of a legal attaché include coordinating requests for FBI or host country assistance overseas; conducting investigations in coordination with the host government; sharing investigative leads and information; briefing embassy counterparts from other agencies, including law enforcement agencies, as appropriate, and ambassadors; managing country clearances; providing situation reports concerning cultural protocol; assessing political and security climates; and coordinating victim and humanitarian assistance.
Gaeta, following his career in Russian organized crime in NY, was stationed as a legat in Rome. He had had previous contact with Steele in connection with the FIFA case dating back to 2010, when Gaeta headed the NY Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force. So it might seem natural that Gaeta should be picked by McCabe--his old comrade--to contact Steele. And you'd be right, except for ...
The FBI's Legal Attache program operates in all major cities. I'm sure the Rome office is a significant one, but I'm guessing that of all Legat offices, the London one is probably the premier office. For a variety of reasons. One of which is that the Brits are far and away our most significant ally in the field of intelligence, especially in the field of electronic surveillance in which the UK's GCHQ is a world class player. In my mind there would be no reason to pass the lead to contact Steele off to someone in the Rome office when the London office would have any number of agents who would be perfectly capable of handling the lead--even if they hadn't spoken to Steele before. And I believe Steele would have been happy to talk to any of them. Moreover, if an agent (Legat) in London handled the lead, there would be no need to get Victoria Nuland's permission for Gaeta to travel to the territory of another very important US Embassy.
You can see where I'm going. McCabe picked his old pal Gaeta because he could trust him, and because in this Russia Hoax operation McCabe would want to keep the circle of knowledge small and confined to people he trusted to be on the same page with him (think, for example, of the way McCabe seems to have used Lisa Page to bypass Bill Priestap in the CI chain of command, preferring Peter Strzok). And, of course, speaking of Priestap ...
If McCabe didn't want the lead to be handled by anyone at the London Legat office, he could have had Priestap handle it. After all, Priestap had already been in touch with the Brits, in late April and the first part of May, 2016. Coincidentally--or not?--when so much of the OCONUS lure ops against Papadopoulos and Page were taking place. But McCabe doesn't seem to have trusted Priestap, and we can see reflections of that in some of the Strzok - Page texts.
In any event, Gaeta would make for an interesting interview, particularly with regard to determining just how far back the FBI's targeting of Trump went. And also with regard to Steele: How, when, and why--really--did he get on this case? Perhaps with the release of Steele's depositions on March 14 we'll get some answers.