A declassified report from the Senate Intelligence Committee released on Wednesday revealed internal conversations about the notorious Steele dossier between the FBI and CIA during the writing of an Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) on Russian election interference and potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
The Steele dossier was at the center of the applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants against former Trump advisor Carter Page for alleged ties to Russia. The first application occurred in October 2016 and, according to a 2019 report by Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz, "relied entirely on" the Steele dossier information, but "that the FBI did not have information corroborating the specific allegations against Carter Page in Steele's reporting..."
The FISA warrants against Page were renewed three times in January, April and June of 2017. But the Wednesday report shows that there were strong doubts over the reliability of the unverified Steele reporting even in December 2016, and that they were circulating among high-ranking officials in the intelligence community, including those at the FBI.
The report, the fourth in a series of such releases by Senate Republicans, adds more detail to information previously reported by Horowitz, whose December 2019 report showed that former FBI Director James Comey and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe each wanted the Steel dossier materials included in the body of the ICA. After pushback from CIA officials involved in the effort, who according to Horowitz "expressed concern about the lack of vetting for the Steele election reporting and asserted it did not merit inclusion in the body of the report," the material was included in a short appendix.
The report released on Wednesday provides more of a window into the December 2016 debate around the ICA and how the Steele information was included -- including that many at the FBI wanted to feature the Steele information prominently.
"The Assistant Director for [redacted] recounted a conversation with FBI Assistant Director for CD on December 22, and recalled the FBI's interest in 'weaving their dossier in the actual text of the report.,'" one line of the Senate Intelligence report reads. "Assistant Director for [redacted] stated there was no 'visibility, at the time of the writing of the report, into the sub-sourcing dynamic for that dossier... because of the subsourcing, I felt [it] was not appropriate for inclusion in the report and would detract from the report.'"
A statement from Former CIA Director John Brennan in the Senate report said that "[i]nitially the FBI wanted it incorporated into the assessment itself." Brennan continued that the CIA did not want to incorporate the intelligence but that "Jim Comey made a very strong case, which we didn't object to, that it needed to accompany the assessment because it was related to the issue, and we didn't know where the FBI's investigation was as far as some of those things."
A statement from former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a similar point. He said that the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) were concerned that the Steele information could not be verified, but that "[w]e felt -- and the whole reason particularly for Jim Comey's part -- that we had a duty to warn the president-elect that this was out there, and that was the whole point."
Comey told the committee that he insisted the information be in the report somewhere but downplayed how strongly he thought it should be in the actual text of the ICA.
"I insisted that we bring it to the party, and I was agnostic as to whether it was footnoted in the document itself, put as an annex," he said.
The driving factor behind the inclusion of the Steele information in the ICA, even in a low-profile location, the committee report concluded, was a directive from President Obama that the ICA "include all the information the IC had on Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election."
Nevertheless, the report reinforces the deep divide regarding how much stock the intelligence community put into the Steele information well before the three renewals of the Page FISA warrants, and that those in the FBI were rather uncritical of Steele's reliability.
"Assistant Director for [redacted] said the FBI Assistant Director told her, 'We feel very strongly that it should be included and woven into the text,' to which Assistant Director for [redacted] stated they would have to 'agree to disagree' and that her recommendation would be that the information 'not be included in the report," the Senate Intelligence Committee report says. "At a minimum, I was thinking it should be pulled out and put in an annex.'"
Comey in a December interview with "Fox News Sunday" on the Horowitz report continued to defend, to an extent, the FBI's reliance on the Steele report for the FISA applications.
"They didn't conclude the reporting from Steele was bunk, they concluded there were significant questions about the reliability of some of the sub-source reporting. That should have been included in the renewals," he said.
When questioned by Wallace over the exaggerations a sub-source for the Steele dossier said Steele had made in the reporting, Comey pushed back, continuing to defend the credibility of the dossier.
"That doesn't drive a conclusion that Steele's reporting is bunk. There's a number of tricky things to that," he said, while noting that the information had become public so the sub-source may have wanted to not be connected to the information.
Comey eventually briefed Trump himself on the Steele dossier in January 2017 before the FBI continued to rely on it for the Page FISA applications. And the Horowitz report " identified at least 17 significant errors or omissions in the Carter Page FISA applications" that "resulted from case agents providing wrong or incomplete information to OI and failing to flag important issues for discussion."
Fox News' Brooke Singman contributed to this report.