If ever there were an admission that taints the FBI’s secret warrant to surveil Donald Trump’s campaign, it sat buried for more than two and a half years in the files of a high-ranking State Department official.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec’s written account of her Oct. 11, 2016, meeting with FBI informant Christopher Steele shows the Hillary Clinton campaign-funded British intelligence operative admitted that his research was political and facing an Election Day deadline.
And that confession occurred 10 days before the FBI used Steele’s now-discredited dossier to justify securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and the campaign’s ties to Russia.
Steele’s client “is keen to see this information come to light prior to November 8,” the date of the 2016 election, Kavalec wrote in a typed summary of her meeting with Steele and Tatyana Duran, a colleague from Steele’s Orbis Security firm. The memos were unearthed a few days ago through open-records litigation by the conservative group Citizens United.
Kavalec’s notes do not appear to have been provided to the House Intelligence Committee during its Russia probe, according to former Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). “They tried to hide a lot of documents from us during our investigation, and it usually turns out there’s a reason for it,” Nunes told me. Senate and House Judiciary investigators told me they did not know about them, even though they investigated Steele’s behavior in 2017-18.
One member of Congress transmitted the memos this week to the Department of Justice’s inspector general, fearing its investigation of FISA abuses may not have had access to them.
Nonetheless, the FBI is doing its best to keep much of Kavalec’s information secret by retroactively claiming it is classified, even though it was originally marked unclassified in 2016.
The apparent effort to hide Kavalec’s notes from her contact with Steele has persisted for some time.
State officials acknowledged a year ago they received a copy of the Steele dossier in July 2016, and got a more detailed briefing in October 2016 and referred the information to the FBI.
But what was discussed was not revealed. Sources told me more than a year ago that Kavalec had the most important (and memorialized) interaction with Steele before the FISA warrant was issued, but FBI and State officials refused to discuss it, or even confirm it.
The encounter, and Kavalec’s memos, were forced into public view through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation by Citizens United. Yet, all but a few lines have been redacted after the fact. Officials are citing as the reason national security, in the name of the FBI and a half-century-old intelligence law.
David Bossie, head of Citizens United and an informal Trump adviser, said the documents suggest there was an illegal effort to “frame” the future president with bogus Russia collusion allegations. “This new information proves why the attorney general must conduct a thorough investigation of the investigators,” he said.
Sources tell me there also are handwritten notes from the meeting, with information about Steele’s political ties, that have not been given to Congress. “There’s a connection to Hillary Clinton in the notes,” said one source who has seen them.
Perhaps those will come to light soon.
The mere three sentences that the FBI allowed State to release, unredacted, show that Kavalec sent an email two days after her encounter with Steele, alerting others.
“You may already have this information but wanted to pass it on just in case,” Kavalec wrote in the lone sentence the FBI and State released from that email. The names of the recipients, the subject line and the attachments are blacked out.
Interestingly, one legal justification cited for redacting the Oct. 13, 2016, email is the National Security Act of 1947, which can be used to shield communications involving the CIA or the White House National Security Council.
The three sentences visible in her memo show that U.S. officials had good reason to suspect Steele’s client and motive in alleging Trump-Russia collusion because they were election-related and facilitated by the Clinton-funded Fusion GPS founder, Glenn Simpson.
“Orbis undertook the investigation into the Russia/Trump connection at the behest of an institution he declined to identify that had been hacked,” Kavalec wrote.
At the time, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was the highest-profile victim of election-year hacking.
“The institution approached them based on the recommendation of Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch (specialists in economic crime, formerly of the WSJ) and is keen to see this information come to light prior to November 8,” Kavalec wrote. “Orbis undertook the investigation in June of 2016.” Steele’s firm Orbis was a subcontractor to Fusion GPS, and WSJ refers to The Wall Street Journal.
Everything else in the memo was redacted. The FOIA notes contain this explanation for the redactions: “Classified by FBI on 4/25/2019 — Class: SECRET.”
In other words, the FBI under Director Christopher Wray classified the document as “secret” just a few days ago. To add injury to insult, the FBI added this hopeful note: “Declassify on 12/31/2041.” That would be 25 years after the 2016 election.
Despite the heavy redactions, Kavalec’s notes have momentous consequence.
For the first time, we have written proof the U.S. government knew well before the FBI secured the FISA warrant that Steele had a political motive and Election Day deadline to make his dossier public.
And we know that information was transmitted before the Carter Page FISA warrant to one or more people whose job is so sensitive that their identity had to be protected. That means there is little chance the FBI didn’t know about Steele’s political client, or the Election Day deadline, before requesting the FISA warrant.
Documents and testimony from Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr, whose wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, show he told the FBI in August 2016 that Steele was “desperate” to defeat Trump and his work had something to do with Clinton’s campaign.
Likewise, there is little chance the FBI didn’t know that Steele, then a bureau informant, had broken protocol and gone to the State Department in an effort to make the Trump dirt public.
That makes the FBI’s failure to disclose to the FISA judges the information about Steele’s political bias and motive all the more stunning. And it makes the agents’ use of his unverified dossier to support the warrant all the more shameful.
Kavalec’s notes shed light on another mystery from the text messages between the FBI’s Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which first revealed the politically-biased nature of the Trump collusion probe.
Strzok, the lead FBI agent on the case, and Page, a lawyer working for the FBI deputy director, repeatedly messaged each other in October 2016 about efforts to pressure and speed the review of the FISA warrant.
For instance, on Oct. 11, 2016, Strzok texted Page that he was “fighting with Stu for this FISA,” an apparent reference to then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stu Evans in DOJ’s national security division.
A few days later, on Oct. 14, Strzok emailed Page he needed some “hurry the F up pressure” to get the FISA approved.
If the evidence is good and the FISA request solid, why did the FBI need to apply pressure?
The real reason may be the FBI was trying to keep a lid on the political origins, motives and Election Day deadline of its star informant Steele.
And that would be the ultimate abuse of the FBI’s FISA powers.