Did Comey Really Testify That the Entire Steele Dossier Was Unverified?
Andrew C. McCarthy published a piece yesterday arguing that there is a “dossier scandal” that undermines the narrative of Russia collusion put out by the New York Times. McCarthy argues that the FBI used the infamous Steele dossier to form part of an application for a warrant to a FISA court, despite the “fact” that Comey had dismissed the dossier as “salacious and unverified”:
Slowly but surely, it has emerged that the Justice Department and FBI very likely targeted Page because of the Steele dossier, a Clinton-campaign opposition-research screed disguised as intelligence reporting. Increasingly, it appears that the Bureau failed to verify Steele’s allegations before the DOJ used some of them to bolster an application for a spying warrant from the FISA court (i.e., the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).
. . . .
Subsequently, however, former FBI director James Comey told a Senate committee that the dossier remained “salacious and unverified.” Obviously, if the FBI had not verified the dossier by the time Comey testified in June 2017, then the Bureau cannot possibly have verified the dossier when DOJ sought the FISA warrant nine months earlier, in September 2016.
. . . .
It has become increasingly clear that Steele’s claims about Page are, at best, highly dubious; more likely, they are untrue. Aside from the fact that Comey has been dismissive of the dossier as “unverified,” Page has vigorously and plausibly denied its allegations about him. The Annapolis grad and former naval-intelligence officer insists he is not even acquainted with the Russian officials with whom he supposedly had traitorous meetings.
I watched Comey’s testimony shortly after he gave it, and did not remember Comey dismissing the entire dossier as “salacious and unverified.” Instead, I recalled Comey applying that label to certain material that he had briefed the President about on January 6 — obviously a reference to the salacious and unverified allegations about Trump having Russian prostitutes pee on a bed in a hotel room.
I read the transcript again last night to confirm my memory, and indeed that is what happened. In fact, Comey was specifically asked whether the FBI had confirmed any criminal allegations in the dossier, and he refused to answer the question in an open setting:
BURR: In the public domain is this question of the “Steele dossier,” a document that has been around out in for over a year. I’m not sure when the FBI first took possession of it, but the media had it before you had it and we had it. At the time of your departure from the FBI, was the FBI able to confirm any criminal allegations contained in the Steele document?
COMEY: Mr. Chairman, I don’t think that’s a question I can answer in an open setting because it goes into the details of the investigation.
. . . .
BURR: So if you’ve got a 36-page document of specific claims that are out there, the FBI would have to for counter intelligence reasons, try to verify anything that might be claimed in there, one, and probably first and foremost, is the counterintelligence concerns that we have about blackmail. Would that be an accurate statement?
COMEY: Yes. If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employee covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that’s the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened.
BURR: And when you read the dossier, what was your reaction, given that it was 100% directed at the president-elect?
COMEY: Not a question I can answer in open setting, Mr. Chairman.
. . . .
KING: In regard to him being personally under investigation, does that mean that the dossier is not being reviewed or investigated or followed up on in any way?
COMEY: I obviously can’t comment either way. I talk in an open setting about the investigation as it was when I was head of the FBI. It is Bob Mueller’s responsibility now. I don’t know.
As you can see, Comey would not answer in an open setting whether the FBI was able to confirm anything in the Steele dossier. Usually, when Comey refused to answer questions in an open setting, it was because it related to an ongoing investigation. Take, for example, Tom Cotton’s question about whether the FBI had ever closed the investigation on Michael Flynn (keep in mind that Flynn had not yet been indicted):
COTTON: Did you ever come close to closing the investigation on Mr. Flynn?
COMEY: I don’t think I can talk about that in open setting either.
We now know that the FBI had most certainly not closed that investigation. The question related to an ongoing investigation that eventually led to an indictment.
It is true that Comey referred to certain material as “salacious and unverified” — but he later implied that there were parts of the dossier that were verified and parts that were not. Here is the testimony using the term “salacious and unverified”:
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Comey, let me begin by thanking you for your voluntary compliance with our request to appear before this committee and assist us in this very important investigation. I want first to ask you about your conversations with the president, three conversations in which you told him that he was not under investigation. The first was during your January 6th meeting, according to your testimony, in which it appears that you actually volunteered that assurance. Is that correct?
COMEY: That’s correct.
COLLINS: Did you limit that statement to counterintelligence invest — investigations, or were you talking about any FBI investigation?
COMEY: I didn’t use the term counterintelligence. I was briefing him about salacious and unverified material. It was in a context of that that he had a strong and defensive reaction about that not being true. My reading of it was it was important for me to assure him we were not person investigating him.
Later, under questioning from Tom Cotton, Comey once again said Trump denied the “unverified and salacious parts”:
COMEY: The president called me I believe shortly before he was inaugurated as a follow-up to our conversation, private conversation on January the 6th. He just wanted to reiterate his rejection of that allegation and talk about—- he’d thought about it more. And why he thought it wasn’t true. The verified — unverified and salacious parts.
Again, the phrase “unverified and salacious parts” is clearly a reference to the peeing on the bed allegation. But “unverified and salacious parts” is language that pointedly does not rule out the concept that there were verified and non-salacious parts as well. Indeed, the pee-on-the-bed story was hardly the only allegation in the Steele dossier. And McCarthy himself has made this exact point in the past:
If the Trump dossier is just a tissue of lies, why are the Justice Department and FBI, now controlled by Trump appointees, concealing information about it rather than anxiously volunteering disclosure? If I had to bet on it, I’d wager that the dossier is like many reports compiled by investigative bodies whose motives are dubious and whose sources are of varying levels of credibility — similar to what you get after investigations by politicized congressional committees, law-enforcement agents who are less than first-rate, or private detectives who, lacking subpoena power, often rely on multiple hearsay. That is, I think the dossier will turn out to be a mixed bag of the true, the false, and the shades of gray in between.
McCarthy went on in his earlier piece to say:
Prior to his dossier work, Steele seems to have enjoyed a good reputation with the American intelligence and law-enforcement agents with whom he had worked. Some of his dossier information appears to come from well-placed sources; some of it is second- and third-hand, and speculative at that. On the face of things, most of Steele’s sources are anonymous, another reason his claims have been given the back of the hand by Trump supporters. But from an investigator’s standpoint, the sources are identifiable: If Steele cooperated with the FBI (and in some instances, even if he didn’t), the Bureau could pretty easily figure out who the sources are, follow the leads, and determine whether the dossier is a complete fabrication.
The FBI plainly did not dismiss the dossier out of hand. If it used some of the dossier’s information in a FISA-court surveillance application, that would only be problematic if agents failed to verify that particular information before seeking the warrant. That would be highly irregular. For now, we don’t know what happened.
There are hundreds of claims in the dossier. Some of them seem outlandish — so much so that, at Forbes, Russia expert Paul Roderick Gregory debunks the dossier emphatically. Nonetheless, to my knowledge, the only claim that has been discredited with persuasive force is the assertion that Trump’s long-time lawyer, Michael Cohen, had secret meetings in Prague with Russian officials. Cohen denies having ever been to Prague, and he maintains that his passport shows no visits there — a claim that wouldn’t necessarily discount travel to the Czech Republic but could have been refuted easily if false. If the Bureau concluded that the dossier’s claim about Cohen is wrong, one could infer that the inaccuracy is reflective of Steele’s overall reporting — in which case, Trump and his associates have nothing to be concerned about.
On the other hand, it could be that some of the dossier’s information is wrong but some is accurate. On that score, Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand has been carefully comparing allegations in the dossier with actual events and has found a good deal of alignment. The factual corroboration is circumstantial — no smoking-gun proof of campaign collusion between Trump associates and Putin’s regime. Much of it is nonetheless disturbing — plainly in the category of suspicious activity investigators would deem worthy of investigation.
So this latest argument that the FBI relied on a document that Comey has already testified was wholly unverified seems to conflate one claim in the dossier with the entire dossier.
None of this is to argue that there was collusion. I’m simply trying here to question an oft-repeated assumption: that James Comey testified that the whole Steele dossier was unverified garbage. He did not do that, so our arguments should not rest on that false assumption.