Special counsel Durham grills FBI official in trial of Steele dossier source



An FBI supervisor repeatedly testified Tuesday that agents did not corroborate an explosive allegation from a former British spy of a “well-developed conspiracy” between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign before citing the claim as a reason to initiate surveillance of a former Trump campaign official.

The FBI official, Brian Auten, who supervised intelligence analysts in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, was the first witness to be called by special counsel John Durham in the trial of Igor Danchenko in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

Danchenko, a U.S.-based researcher who gave information to former British spy Christopher Steele that ended up in the now-infamous dossier of allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia, was indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents who interviewed him in 2017 about the sources behind his claims.

“The defendant lied,” assistant special counsel Michael Keilty said in his opening statement to the jury Tuesday. “First, he fabricated a source, and second, he concealed a source.”

Steele dossier source heads to trial, in possible last stand for Durham

Durham will have to convince jurors not only that Danchenko lied to the FBI about his sources, but that his deception had a “material” impact on the FBI’s Russia investigation. But, as Durham’s questioning of Auten showed, the special counsel also seemed to be presenting the case that the FBI was not as thorough as it could have been, and ended up relying on information provided by Danchenko to move its investigation forward.

Keilty, in his opening statement, said Danchenko’s case was about “lies that the FBI should have uncovered, but never did.”

Danchenko defense attorney Danny Onorato said his client “gave the FBI truthful information” and was being prosecuted for giving equivocal answers.

The FBI had initiated an investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin to affect the 2016 election before it used the so-called “Steele dossier” to justify surveilling a former Trump campaign adviser. The Justice Department inspector general had previously determined the bureau was justified in opening the probe, which would eventually be taken over by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The special counsel ultimately did not find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but noted links between campaign officials and the Kremlin, and cast the campaign as eager to benefit from Russia’s help.

Under questioning from Durham, Auten said multiple times that the FBI sought to corroborate a report of a “well-developed conspiracy” between Trump and Russia at the height of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — an allegation taken from the Steele reports — but was unable to do so.

The FBI used the unconfirmed report, Auten testified, to seek court approval of a secret surveillance warrant to monitor Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, and then successfully got that warrant reauthorized on three occasions, based in part on the same, uncorroborated claim.

“Was this an important piece of information that was included in the [warrant] application?” Durham asked.

“Yes, it was,” Auten said.

“And it was uncorroborated?” Durham asked.

“Yes,” Auten replied, adding later that the passage in question from the Steele dossier “was carried over into subsequent applications.”

Durham was asked by then-attorney general William P. Barr in 2019 to dig into the origins of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation into possible coordination between Trump and Russia. Some conservatives hoped his investigation would reveal that significant government malfeasance drove the probe into Trump’s campaign.

Auten has been the focus of critical articles in conservative media, and some of his actions were questioned by the Justice Department’s inspector general in a 2019 report noting several errors in the FBI’s process for seeking secret surveillance of Page.

Durham’s investigation so far has yielded one guilty plea with no jail time for a former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, who admitted he altered a government email used for the Page warrant applications. A cybersecurity lawyer who also was charged with lying to the FBI, Michael Sussmann, was acquitted by a jury in D.C. federal court in May.

Born in the Soviet Union and based in Washington, Danchenko was hired by Steele to investigate possible links between Trump and the Kremlin. Steele had been hired to produce reports by research firm Fusion GPS, which had been retained by a law firm that represented Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic National Committee. Fusion GPS was initially hired to probe Trump’s background by a website funded by a deep-pocketed GOP donor.

Auten told the jury that shortly after receiving the first batch of Steele documents in the fall of 2016, a group of FBI officials met with Steele and offered him “anywhere up to $1 million” for information that would corroborate the claims in his reports. But Steele never did provide corroboration, Auten said in response to Durham.

Auten said Danchenko was paid by the FBI as a “confidential human source” after he was first interviewed about the sources for his claims in January 2017, because the bureau wanted to find out the identities of his sources and judge the veracity of the information he provided to Steele. Other witnesses expected to testify are the FBI agent who served as Danchenko’s handler, and one of the people Durham claims Danchenko lied about to the FBI: a longtime Washington PR executive named Charles Dolan Jr.

But Steele is not expected to take the stand, and neither is the other person Danchenko is alleged to have lied to the FBI about: Sergei Millian, the former president of the Russian American Chamber of Commerce who prosecutors say Danchenko deceptively claimed as a source of information.

Testimony is expected to resume Wednesday and last about a week.


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