Too good to check is an instinct that never serves journalists well, and it's especially worse when it's a policy of a law enforcement organization with enormous authority.
We learn from special counsel John Durham’s indictment of Igor Danchenko that “the FBI ultimately devoted substantial resources attempting to investigate and corroborate the allegations” in the now-infamous Steele dossier. “Ultimately” is right — but not before it relied on the shoddy document to surveil an American citizen in an investigation that produced the Mueller probe and a two-year-long obsession with Trump and Russian built on a preposterous foundation.
The network of deception is complex, but although the indictment reveals a horrifying narrative of global dirty tactics used at the highest levels of American politics, the FBI's moral failing was the most crucial.
Durham, who is looking into the beginnings of the FBI's Trump-Russia inquiry, has charged Danchenko with five charges of lying to FBI agents about how the dossier was put together. The dossier was a compilation of political opposition research masquerading as intelligence reports, produced at the request of Hillary Clinton's team, and depicted Donald Trump and his 2016 campaign as Kremlin spies.
It's important to go over the history in depth.
These papers were written by Christopher Steele, a former British agent, in collaboration with Glenn Simpson, co-founder of the political research firm Fusion GPS. Simpson was hired by Perkins Coie, a sharp-elbowed Democratic legal firm that represented the Clinton campaign. Simpson, in turn, enlisted the help of Steele, who in turn enlisted the help of Danchenko, a business partner.
When a Justice Department inspector-general probe was opened in late 2020, it revealed Danchenko's past, which is worthy of a second-rate espionage book. He landed at the Brookings Institution, a major Clinton-friendly think-tank, as a Russian citizen transferred to Washington as a geopolitics specialist. Danchenko was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation by the FBI in 2009. He allegedly told two Brookings workers who seemed to be on their way to Obama administration employment that if they passed along confidential material, he could make it worthwhile for them. The staffers (one of whom believed Danchenko must be a Russian agent – imagine that!) instead passed along word of Danchenko’s entreaty to the FBI. The Bureau learned that Danchenko appeared to be tied to two Russian agents who were also under investigation.
Agents were preparing to pursue monitoring of Danchenko for national security purposes under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). However, in a disturbing trend, the FBI did not pursue the case further and terminated it in March 2011, ostensibly assuming Danchenko had returned to Russia.
In fact, he had begun working with Steele. Danchenko was introduced to Steele in 2010 by Fiona Hill, another Brookings Russia scholar. Hill, you may recall, was a Trump White House National Security Council member who provided key testimony in the House’s impeachment of then-President Trump in the Ukraine kerfuffle. (Hill appears not to have been knowingly complicit in the unrelated Trump-Russia hype.)
Steele relied on Danchenko for the majority of the information when he was hired for the Clinton campaign's anti-Trump operation in April 2016. Danchenko did not have a network of valuable connections, contrary to Steele's subsequent allegations. However, Hill appears to have accidentally advanced the story once again. Danchenko was introduced to Charles Dolan, a Russian-focused businessman and Democratic Party supporter, by her in 2016.
Dolan is identified in the indictment as “PR Executive-1” because he helped run a public-relations firm. He is a longtime Clinton insider, having worked on Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, as well as Hillary’s failed 2008 and 2016 bids. In the interim, he was appointed by President Clinton to a State Department advisory committee. From 2006 until 2014, the Kremlin retained Dolan to be its global public-relations agent. For much of that time, conveniently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the Obama administration point-person on the “Russia Reset,” in which the State Department promoted Russian economic development.
As the indictment details, Dolan hired Danchenko to consult on a conference he planned for October 2016 in Moscow. In the preceding months, Dolan had constant communication with Danchenko and made a preparatory trip to Moscow, meeting with Danchenko. Dolan would pass information to Danchenko, which Danchenko would embellish, sometimes beyond recognition, in passing it on to Steele, who dutifully included it in the dossier without disclosing its origins.
In the most notorious example, Dolan had meetings in a Moscow hotel and was given a tour of the presidential suite, in which he was told Donald Trump had once stayed. Danchenko was not present for these meetings, and the indictment says there was no discussion of any sexual hijinks. Dolan then communicated some of the details to Danchenko who, within days, flew to London to meet with Steele. By the time Steele finished writing up what Danchenko told him, the episode had been spun into the now infamous “pee tape” claim – i.e., that Trump had cavorted with prostitutes in the presidential suite, which they defiled because Trump hated the Obamas (who had supposedly stayed there earlier), and Putin thus had a recording of the whole sordid affair. In reality, Danchenko is Steele’s source, has no first-hand knowledge, and appears to have made the whole thing up.
According to the indictment, Danchenko lied to the FBI about getting information from Dolan. He also lied about having learned directly from a close Trump associate that Trump’s campaign was in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” with the Kremlin. Danchenko claimed that this information came from the president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce — identified in the indictment as “Chamber President-1,” and in public reporting as Sergei Millian.
A minor real-estate developer, Millian did some business with the Trump organization and started this obscure “chamber” in order to raise his profile. In reality, Danchenko never spoke or met with Millian. He continued to cling to his incredible story in several interviews by the FBI throughout 2017. As a result, four of the five false statement counts relate to this alleged fabrication. The other concerns Danchenko’s alleged concealment of Dolan’s role.
The spotlight on Danchenko, and on the seminal role of the Hillary Clinton campaign in creating and disseminating the Trump-Russia “collusion” tale, is understandable. It should not, however, divert attention from the FBI’s stunningly inept performance. On its face, the dossier is a screed full of blatant nonsense. The Danchenko indictment shows that if a modicum of fair-minded investigation had been done, a borderline competent FBI agent would quickly have spotted its glaring weaknesses. Yet, the Bureau took no meaningful action to corroborate the Steele/Danchenko claims before seeking FISA warrants under oath. Agents did not even interview Danchenko, the main source, until four months later.
Too good to check is an impulse that never serves journalists well, and it’s even worse when it is the policy of a law-enforcement agency wielding awesome powers. At best, the FBI allowed itself to get duped into playing along with a political hit against, first, a presidential candidate and, then, the duly elected president of the United States. May John Durham continue to expose the details of this sorry scheme, and hold accountable anyone who broke the law in the course of advancing it.