Igor Danchenko is on trial, but so is the FBI.
That is the theme of Russiagate special counsel John Durham’s prosecution of Danchenko, heading into its third day of trial in Alexandria, Va., federal court.
Danchenko is charged with five counts of lying to the FBI about two of his sources for what became the infamous “Steele dossier” — a compilation of faux intelligence reports, mainly authored by former British spy Christopher Steele, that portrayed the GOP’s then-presidential candidate, Donald Trump, as a clandestine agent of Russia.
Danchenko was Steele’s principal source. In essence, Durham accuses him of (a) concealing from the FBI that he was getting some information about the Trump campaign from Clinton political ally Charles Dolan and (b) falsely claiming he received explosive information from Sergei Millian, a Belarusian-American tangentially associated with Trump, alleging the GOP candidate was in a “conspiracy of cooperation” with the Kremlin.
It remains to be seen whether Durham can prove these charges: The allegation related to Dolan is not crystal clear (because Danchenko did make a vague reference to discussions with him), and Millian, who is overseas and beyond US subpoena power, has refused to testify.
What is not in doubt, though, is that the trial is highlighting the FBI’s shocking malfeasance in the Trump-Russia “collusion” probe, which it codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane.”
The first witness in the case was FBI supervisory intelligence analyst Brian Auten, of whom Durham himself conducted the prosecution’s questioning. Auten conceded the FBI had offered Steele $1 million if he could prove his sensational allegations that Trump was in cahoots with the regime of Vladimir Putin and that the Kremlin was positioned to blackmail the then-candidate because it supposedly possessed a video recording of Trump engaging in sexual hijinks.
Ultimately, the bureau never had to pay the $1 million because neither Steele nor Danchenko could prove the dossier allegations. In fact, according to court filings, Durham’s investigation has concluded the so-called pee tape was a complete fabrication. Further, when the FBI finally got around to interviewing Danchenko, months after it first received Steele’s reporting, Danchenko debunked it as a screed of rumor and innuendo, much of it exaggerated and gussied up to look like professional intelligence analysis.
More to the point, though, that the FBI offered to pay such an exorbitant sum in hopes Steele’s anti-Trump claims could be backed up is proof positive the bureau knew these claims were not verified.
That is key. The rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Justice Department mandate the FBI must verify information before submitting it to the court in applying for surveillance warrants. Even though it could not prove the Steele allegations and had every reason to know they were exaggerated if not out-and-out false, the FBI relied on the Steele claims in sworn applications.
It gets worse. The FBI obtained FISC surveillance warrants to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in October 2016 and mid-January 2017, representing to the court that Trump appeared to be in a corrupt conspiracy with the Kremlin. Finally, in late January, the FBI interviewed Danchenko, who debunked Steele’s reporting. Nevertheless, even after speaking with Danchenko, the bureau continued relying on Steele’s allegations when — again under oath — it persuaded the court to extend the surveillance in April and June 2017.
Indeed, not only did the FBI fail to disclose to the Justice Department and the court that Danchenko had contradicted Steele’s claims. The bureau told the court it had interviewed Danchenko to “further corroborate” Steele’s reporting (which actually had not been corroborated). In so doing, the bureau elaborated, it found Danchenko to be “truthful and cooperative.”
Of course, what the FBI didn’t mention was that what Danchenko had been “truthful and cooperative” about was the fact Steele’s claims were sheer nonsense. Thus, FISC judges were led to believe Danchenko had verified Steele’s reporting when the truth was just the opposite.
Under cross-examination Wednesday, Auten acknowledged Durham told him he was the subject of a criminal investigation. And after the Justice Department’s inspector general blasted the FBI’s performance in the Crossfire Hurricane probe, Director Christopher Wray referred Auten to the bureau’s Office of Professional Responsibility for an internal investigation and possible discipline.
Unbelievably, even with all that going on, the FBI brought Auten in during the run-up to the 2020 election to analyze derogatory information about Hunter Biden’s potentially corrupt overseas business dealings, which enriched the Biden family to the tune of millions of dollars.
Auten reportedly produced an analysis that pooh-poohed the disparaging Biden reporting as Russian disinformation. That claim, which appears to be baseless, was used by an FBI supervisor to undercut the criminal investigation of Hunter Biden and by former US intelligence officials to dismiss the New York Post’s reporting on Biden’s deeply disturbing laptop data.
Yes, Igor Danchenko is on trial, but the spotlight ought to be on the FBI — and on what Durham’s final report will have to say about the nation’s premier federal law-enforcement agency.
Andrew C. McCarthy is a former federal prosecutor.