By January 2017, F.B.I. agents had tracked down and interviewed one of Mr. Steele’s main sources, a Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West, according to a Justice Department document and three people familiar with the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. After questioning him about where he’d gotten his information, they suspected he might have added his own interpretations to reports passed on by his sources, one of the people said. For the F.B.I., that made it harder to decide what to trust.
Agents did not believe that either the source or Mr. Steele was deliberately inventing things, according to the former official. How the dossier ended up loaded with dubious or exaggerated details remains uncertain, but the document may be the result of a high-stakes game of telephone, in which rumors and hearsay were passed from source to source.
Another possibility — one that Mr. Steele has not ruled out — could be Russian disinformation.
Let's go step by step.
By January, 2017, FBI agents had "tracked down" one of Steele's "main sources." Really? Tracked down ... how? Pardon my skepticism, but I think a proper translation of this narrative would run something like this ...
By January, 2017, the FBI had finally persuaded Steele to allow them to speak to someone whom he claimed was a source of information for his dossier. In other words, by that point in time Steele had worked out a story with a Russian he knew, had rehearsed it, and thought it might work for purposes of an interview. And who was this dynamite source, who could pass on what Westerners were meeting with which Putin insiders? "A Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West." That's not very impressive as sources go, even allowing for protection of the "source's" identity.
But then they drop a real bombshell--this source, this "Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West," turns out to have been passing on tittle tattle from other "sources." And of course neither the FBI nor Steele would, even accepting that this was true, have access to those sources--who may or may not have ever existed. Obviously Steele must be a big John le Carre fan, since this reads exactly like the "source Merlin" setup in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--with Steele, appropriately enough, playing Bill Haydon, the Russian "mole."
I'm not going to say I'm surprised that the FBI fell for this nonsense--people in all walks of life tend to believe what they want to believe. That, of course, is granting the FBI a considerable benefit of the doubt. However, I am going to say that I'm surprised, even a bit shocked, that they would have been so reckless as to put themselves so far on the wrong side of the law as to:
- Present this stuff to the FISC without any elementary steps taken to verify it, but representing this "information" as passing the probable cause standard of scrutiny;
- Fail to pull the plug on the FISA immediately when they came to have doubts, and inform the FISC of this decision;
- Not only continue the FISA but renew it three times despite their doubts--again, without flagging these serious problems.
And they did this without any credible backup stories or excuses that I'm aware of. Yes, they claimed they trusted Steele, based on past experience with him, but that's not a terribly credible excuse either (cf. Just How Reliable Is Christopher Steele?) In my opinion that excuse is unlikely to hold much water when push comes to shove--like, at a criminal trial. Not only will the FBI be required to explain why they presented this material to the FISC without full disclosure and caveats regarding their inability to verify it, but Bruce Ohr will be testifying that he told everyone who would listen just how biased Steele was.
If it comes to that point, I doubt that many people in a position to judge will be entertaining much uncertainty as to "How the dossier ended up loaded with dubious or exaggerated details." Nor will those in a position to judge have much sympathy for the FBI's conduct, considering what it's objective was: to spy on a presidential campaign organization.
So, perhaps what this story represents is the dawning awareness at the FBI that CYA time has arrived. If those who were involved in the Carter Page FISA are in a position to finger higher level officials who were behind all this, they'd better be doing that sooner rather than later. Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff will not save them from Bill Barr.
POSTSCRIPT: Am I the only person who wonders how Rod Rosenstein has been spending his days at DoJ for the last two months. Redacting the Mueller report could have been accomplished in one long workday. Perhaps, rather than stonewalling IG Horowitz he's now assisting Horowitz's inquiries. Perhaps he's trying to convince Horowitz of what he told the House--that he didn't actually bother to read that final FISA application. Ouch! That'll be a tough sell, one way or another. Either he was lying or he was grossly derelict in fulfilling his duties. Then again, maybe he has some other interesting stories to relate.