Meet the Russiagate Prober Who Couldn't Verify Anything in the Steele Dossier Yet Said Nothing for Years
By Paul Sperry, RealClearInvestigations
For the past four years, Democrats and the Washington media have suspended disbelief about the Steele dossier’s credibility by arguing that some Russia allegations against Donald Trump and his advisers have been corroborated and therefore the most explosive charges may also be true. But recently declassified secret testimony by the FBI official in charge of corroborating the dossier blows up that narrative. John Durham: As the special counsel zeroes in on the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane probe, Brian Auten (top photo) has reportedly lawyered up. Associated Press The top analyst assigned to the FBI’s Russia “collusion” case, codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, admitted under oath that neither he nor his team of half a dozen intelligence analysts could confirm any of the allegations in the dossier — including ones the FBI nonetheless included in several warrant applications as evidence to establish legal grounds to electronically monitor a former Trump adviser for almost a year.
FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten made the admission under questioning by staff investigators for the Senate Judiciary Committee during closed-door testimony in October. The committee only this year declassified the transcript, albeit with a number of redactions including the name of Auten, who was identified by congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“So with respect to the Steele reporting,” Auten told the committee, “the actual allegations and the actions described in those reports could not be corroborated.”
After years of digging, Auten conceded that the only material in the dossier that he could verify was information that was already publicly available, such as names, entities, and positions held by persons mentioned in the document.
His testimony, kept secret for several months, is eye-opening because it’s the first time anybody from the FBI has acknowledged headquarters failed to verify any of the dossier evidence supporting the wiretaps as true and correct.
As one of the FBI's leading experts on Russia, Auten was highly familiar with the subject matter of the dossier and the Russian players it cited. He also had a team of intelligence analysts at his disposal to pore over the material and chase down leads. They even traveled overseas to interview the dossier’s author, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, and other sources.
Rendezvous with Russians? The FBI early on debunked this claim about Trump's attorney documentcloud.org Still, they could not corroborate any of the allegations of Trump-Russia “collusion" in the dossier, and actually debunked many of them — including the rumor, oft-repeated by the media, that Trump attorney Michael Cohen flew to Prague in the summer of 2016 to secretly huddle with Kremlin agents over an alleged Trump-Russia plot to hack the election. They determined that Cohen had never even been to the Czech Republic. Micheal Cohen: The dubious Prague rumor lived on in the media for years. AP/John Minchillo Yet Auten and his Crossfire teammates -- who referred to the dossier as “Crown material,” as if it were valuable intelligence from America’s closest ally, Britain -- never informed a secret surveillance court that the dossier was a bust. Instead, they used it as the basis for all four warrant applications to spy on Carter Page, a tangential 2016 Trump campaign adviser. Former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who personally signed and approved the final application, has testified that without the dossier, the warrants could not have been obtained.
Financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 as opposition research against Trump, the dossier was used by the FBI to obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrants to eavesdrop on Page from October 2016 to September 2017. A U.S. citizen, Page was accused of being a Russian agent, even though he previously assisted both the CIA and FBI in their efforts to hold Moscow in check. He was never charged with a crime and at least half the warrants have since been invalidated by the court. Page is now suing the FBI, as well as Auten, among other individual defendants, and is seeking a total of $75 million in damages.
The bureau’s handling of the warrants is part of Special Counsel John Durham’s ongoing investigation into the government’s targeting of Trump and his campaign during the election, and later, the Trump presidency. In January, Durham secured a criminal conviction against top Crossfire lawyer Kevin Clinesmith for falsifying evidence against Page to help justify the last warrant issued in June 2017.
It could not be ascertained whether Durham has interviewed Auten — a spokesman did not return messages -- but Auten has hired one of the top white-collar criminal defense lawyers in Washington. And former federal law enforcement officials say Auten is certainly on Durham's witness list. Andrew McCabe: The former acting FBI boss has testified that without the dossier, spy warrants could not have been obtained. “That analyst needs to be investigated,” said former assistant FBI director and prosecutor Chris Swecker, noting that Auten is a central, if overlooked, figure in the FISA abuse scandal — and one who attended several meetings with McCabe in the Durham case. In fact, the 52-year-old analyst shows up at every major juncture in the Crossfire investigation.
Auten, who did not respond to requests for comment directly or through his lawyer, was assigned to the case from its opening in July 2016 and supervised its analytical efforts, including researching other members of the Trump campaign who might serve as possible targets in addition to Page. He played a key supportive role for the agents preparing the FISA applications, including reviewing the probable-cause section of the applications and providing the agents with information about the sub-sources noted in the applications, and even drafting some of the language that ended up in the affidavits to spy on Page. He also helped prepare and review the FISA renewal drafts.
A 15-year FBI veteran, Auten assisted the case agents in providing information on the reliability of FBI informant Steele and his sources and reviewing for accuracy their information cited in the body of the applications, as well as the footnotes. He also sifted through the emails, text messages and phone calls the FBI collected from the wiretaps on Page. He met with top Crossfire officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, briefed McCabe and then-FBI Director James Comey, and even ran meetings with case agents and analysts regarding the election-year investigation, which he testified “was done as a 'headquarters special.’ " Christopher Steele: Personally met with Auten. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP) In addition, Auten personally met with Steele and his “primary sub-source,” a Russian emigre living in the U.S., as well as former British intelligence colleagues of Steele. Auten also met with former Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and processed the material Ohr fed the FBI from Glenn Simpson, the political opposition research contractor who hired Steele to compile the anti-Trump dossier on behalf of the Clinton campaign. He was involved in key source interviews where David Laufman and other top Justice officials were present, and shows up on critical email chains with these officials, who are also subjects of interest in the Durham probe.
Auten also attended meetings of a mysterious top-secret interagency entity, believed to have been overseen and budgeted by then-CIA Director John Brennan, known as the “Crossfire Hurricane Fusion Center,” or the Fusion Cell. Finally, it was Auten who provided analytical support to Special Counsel Robert Mueller when he took over the Crossfire case in May 2017. He brought his team of six analysts with him to Mueller’s office. Instead of disqualifying the dossier as evidence, Auten let its fictions go into FISA applications. Associated Press As early as January 2017, Auten discovered that the dossier was larded with errors, misspellings, factual inaccuracies, conflicting accounts and wild rumors, according to a Justice Department inspector general report on the FISA abuses. Instead of disqualifying the dossier as evidence, the report found he let its unsubstantiated innuendo go into the FISA applications. Auten gave Steele the benefit of the doubt when sources or developments called into question the reliability of his information or his own credibility, according to the same inspector general’s report. In many cases, he acted more as an advocate than a fact-checker, while turning a blind eye to the dossier’s red flags, the report documented. Carter Page: In an FBI spreadsheet, Auten cited a Yahoo News article as possible corroboration of “Page’s alleged meeting with Divyekin” — even though the source of that article was Christopher Steele himself. AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin For example, when a top Justice national security lawyer initially blocked the Crossfire team’s attempts to obtain a FISA warrant, Auten proactively turned to the dossier to try to push the case over the line. In a September 2016 email to FBI lawyers, he forwarded an unsubstantiated claim from the dossier that Page secretly met with Kremlin-tied official Igor Divyekin in July 2016 and asked, "Does this put us at least *that* much closer to a full FISA on [Carter Page]?" (Asterisks for emphasis in the original.)
Senate investigators grilled Auten about his eager acceptance of the allegation, which Page had denied in secretly recorded conversations with an undercover FBI informant — exculpatory evidence that was withheld from the FISA court. Auten confessed he had no other information to independently verify the dossier’s charge, which was central to the FISA warrants. In a declassified internal FBI spreadsheet he compiled in January 2017 to try to corroborate the dossier, Auten cited a September 2016 Yahoo News article as possible corroboration of “Page’s alleged meeting with Divyekin” — even though the source of that article was Steele himself.
"So you had no knowledge of a secret meeting between Divyekin and Page, but you thought this information 'put us at least that much closer to a full FISA' on Carter Page?” then-chief Senate Judiciary Committee investigative counsel Zach Somers asked Auten, incredulously. “Why does the mention of a meeting with Page and Divyekin move you ‘that much closer’ to a FISA application if you haven’t confirmed the information in the Steele dossier?”
“There was something about Divyekin,” Auten said. "That’s all I can say."
In the secret informant recordings, which were made before the Crossfire team submitted its first FISA warrant application in October 2016, Page stated he never met with Divyekin or even knew who he was.
“Were you aware of his statements denying knowing who Divyekin was?” Somers asked Auten. “I don't recall exactly whether or not I knew those statements at the time or whether I learned about those statements subsequent to that time,” Auten replied.
"Do you think you learned about them prior to the first Page FISA application?” Somers persisted. "I'm not sure if I learned them before the first Page application,” Auten answered.
Former FBI Special Agent Michael Biasello, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who spent 10 years in counterintelligence working closely with intelligence analysts, said Auten should be “held accountable” for his role in what he described as FBI headquarters' blatant disregard for the diligent process FISA warrants demand.
“A FISA warrant must be fully corroborated. Every statement, phrase, paragraph, must be verified in order for the affiant to attest before a judge that the contents are true and correct,” he said. “I remember agents and analysts scouring warrants and affidavits obsessively to make certain the document was meticulous and accurate."
“To think the Crossfire team signed off on those FISA affidavits knowing the contents were uncorroborated is unconscionable, immoral and also illegal,” Biasello added. "All of them must be prosecuted for perjury, fraud and other federal crimes.” The Spreadsheet Auten oversaw the early 2017 creation of a 94-page FBI spreadsheet that analyzed the credibility of the Steele dossier, excerpt by excerpt.
At first blush, the spreadsheet appears to corroborate some of the rumors. But upon closer inspection, the analysis relies heavily on media reports as the chief pieces of confirmation. The press citations, which number in the hundreds, are used in lieu of official corroboration.
Alexandra Chalupa: Auten used an article written by the sister of this Democratic contractor as possible support for Steele's claim that Trump was compromised by a Russian sex tape. YouTube screen grab/Fox News Listed under a section titled “Corroboration,” the spreadsheet repeatedly cites stories published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN, as well as more overtly anti-Trump outlets like the Huffington Post and Mother Jones. It twice used the same Yahoo News story to corroborate separate Steele allegations, despite the fact Steele was the main source for the article. (During the 2016 campaign, Steele had briefed Yahoo author Michael Isikoff on his opposition research for about an hour in a private room at the Tabard Inn in Washington.)
Auten and his FBI analysts used a magazine article written by the sister of Democratic National Committee contractor Alexandra “Ali” Chalupa — a key promoter of the Trump collusion narrative during the 2016 election — as possible support for Steele's lurid claim (later debunked) that Trump was compromised by a Russian sex tape. RealClearInvestigations has learned exclusively that the spreadsheet glosses over one of the most glaring factual errors in the dossier — that Moscow allegedly paid DNC hackers through a Russian consulate in Miami. For starters, there is no Russian consulate in Miami. But Auten and his analysts remained silent about the reference to a phantom Miami consulate. It was never addressed in the nearly 100-page spreadsheet. Highlighting that gaffe might have exposed the shoddiness of the entire case.
In the end, Auten never confirmed anything from Steele’s rumor sheet the FBI cited as probable-cause evidence in its requests to obtain warrants. To the contrary, he "ultimately determined that some of the allegations contained in Steele's election reporting were inaccurate,” the IG report revealed, although he kept those discoveries from the court.
Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz singled out the lead analyst in his 2019 report for cutting a number of corners in the verification process and even allowing information he knew to be incorrect to slip into the FISA affidavits and mislead the court. Igor Danchenko: Auten and the FBI's Crossfire team led the FISA court to believe the dossier's primary source was “Russian-based.” He wasn't. Twitter For instance, Auten learned as early as January 2017 that Steele’s primary source, Igor Danchenko, lived in the United States, not Russia; yet Auten and the Crossfire team led the FISA court to believe he was “Russian-based” – and therefore presumably more credible. As RCI first reported, Danchenko was a hard-drinking gossip who had worked for the Brookings Institution, a Democratic Party think tank. It turns out the anti-Trump rumors he fed Steele — in exchange for cash — was dubious hearsay passed along over drinks with his high school buddies and an old girlfriend. “The FISA applications all say that he’s Russian-based,” Somers pressed Auten. “Do you think that should have been corrected with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court?" Auten said he raised the issue with Clinesmith, the convicted FBI lawyer. “And what response did you get back?” Somers asked. “I did not get a response back,” Auten replied. And so the “Russian-based” deception lived on through the FISA renewals. The FBI continued to use the Steele rumor sheet as a basis for renewing its FISA monitoring of Page -- and by extension, potentially the Trump campaign and presidency — through incidental collections of emails, text messages and intercepted phone calls. (FISAs let the FBI snoop not only on the target of the warrant, but also anyone communicating with the target and the target’s associates.) Perhaps most telling, Auten also withheld the fact Danchenko disavowed key allegations Steele put in the dossier. No Regrets, No Remorse Nonetheless, Auten appeared unbothered by the myriad problems with the dossier. He told Horowitz that he did not have any “pains or heartburn” over the accuracy of the Steele reports. As for Steele’s reliability as an FBI informant, Horowitz said, the analyst merely “speculated" that his prior reporting was sound and did not see a need to “dig into” his handler’s case file, which showed that past tips from Steele had gone uncorroborated and were never used in court. In a September 2016 memo used in the FISA applications to describe Steele’s credibility as a source, Auten falsely claimed Steele’s prior material had been corroborated. According to the IG report, Auten also wasn’t concerned about Steele’s animus for Trump or that he was paid by Trump’s political opponent, calling the fact he was paid by the Clinton's campaign “immaterial.” Under Senate grilling, Auten confirmed the fact-checking lapses highlighted by Horowitz, but remained unrepentant.
He insisted, “It was justified to open these cases” — not only against Carter Page, but also Trump advisers Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and George Papadopoulos -- even while revealing that he and his analysts discussed taking out "professional liability insurance" policies because they worried the irregular Crossfire investigation “would likely result in extra scrutiny.” FBI Director Christopher Wray has kept Auten in his job at the bureau, where he continues to work at headquarters as a supervisory intelligence analyst. The FBI provided him counsel at his private Senate hearing. Wray has assured Horowitz he’s conducting a review of all FBI personnel who had responsibility for the preparation of the invalid FISA warrant applications and would take any appropriate action to deal with them for misconduct. It’s not immediately known if Auten has undergone such an internal review. The FBI declined comment. This and all other original articles created by RealClearInvestigations may be republished for free with attribution.