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Sen. Lindsey Graham revealed on Friday that Bill Priestap, the FBI’s former head of counterintelligence, is the official he claims gave misleading information to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2018 about the reliability of British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s anti-Trump dossier.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee told Trey Gowdy, sitting in for Sean Hannity on his Fox News show, that he learned the name from FBI Director Christopher Wray, and will hand over whatever information he gets to U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is conducting a criminal inquiry into the Russia investigation. Priestap was a key leader in the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, codenamed Crossfire Hurricane.
The announced came hours after it was revealed that former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith intended to plead guilty after being charged in Durham’s investigation with making false statements related to his altering of a CIA email to make it state that Carter Page was “not a source” for the CIA as the bureau sought renewed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court permission to secretly wiretap the former Trump campaign associate. The FBI’s warrant applications in this matter relied in part on Steele’s now-discredited dossier.
“This is a big day for transparency and the rule of law. So [DOJ Inspector General Michael] Horowitz — it’s not in his report, Trey, but he found a briefing document dated sometime in February 2018 that was prepared by the FBI because the Senate Intel Committee … had real concerns about the Russian subsource,” Graham said.
“So they asked the FBI to come in and brief them. So I asked Director Wray, ‘Who did the briefing?’ Well, it’s Bill Priestap, who’s this guy? He’s one of the leaders of Crossfire Hurricane. A year after the subsource told the FBI in 2017 there is zero corroboration for the dossier, I wouldn’t trust it with a solid grain of salt, hearsay, bar talk. They knew for over a year, and now, you’ve got Bill Priestap on Feb. 15, 2018, with four other people from the FBI briefing this Senate Intel Committee, completely whitewashing the truth about the reliability of the dossier,” the South Carolina Republican added.
“Now, Director Wray has been really good, he’s given me the information, more is going to follow, but what I’m going to do with this is turn it over to Durham because I think the briefing in 2018, a year after the subsource told the FBI the dossier was a bunch of garbage, whitewashing that report to the Senate Intel Committee is potentially another crime. So, I’m going to send all of this to Durham when I get it.”Graham contends that the FBI misled the Senate Intelligence Committee in early 2018 about Steele’s primary subsource, recently revealed to be Russian-trained, D.C.-based lawyer Igor Danchenko, who the FBI knew by then had undermined the credibility of many of Steele’s Trump-Russia allegations following multiple interviews with him in early 2017. Graham, who is facing a tough reelection battle, pressed Wray to provide him details about this briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Friday. The information he demanded included the name and position of the bureau’s briefer, of all the FBI officials who attended the briefing, and of all the bureau employees involved in putting together the now-declassified draft taking points.
Graham has said the newly declassified FBI document appears to make a host of misleading claims about Danchenko. In a letter sent on Monday, the senator told Wray that “each of these statements is clearly inaccurate” based on information uncovered through the senator’s inquiry and by DOJ Inspector General Horowitz’s investigation into the FBI’s Russia inquiry, which ended late last year.
“The FBI knew each of these statements was inaccurate at the time they were included in the outline for the briefing,” Graham said.
Horowitz, who released his report in December, said FBI interviews with Steele’s primary subsource “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting” and cast doubt on some of its biggest claims. The DOJ watchdog noted the primary subsource “made statements during his/her January 2017 FBI interview that were inconsistent with multiple sections of the Steele reports, including some that were relied upon in the FISA applications” and that Danchenko’s account “was not consistent with and, in fact, contradicted the allegations of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’” in Steele’s dossier.
Priestap, who had been the assistant director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division from December 2015 to December 2018, was the leader of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into Russian interference and allegations of Trump-Russia collusion. Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released in April 2019, said Russians interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but it “did not establish” any criminal collusion between any Russians and anyone in Trump’s orbit
One revelation in Horowitz’s report was that now-fired FBI special agent Peter Strzok was involved in the decision to initiate the counterintelligence investigation into Trump and Russia, but it was his superior, Priestap, who made the actual authorization in late July 2016. Horowitz concluded that the genesis of Crossfire Hurricane was not motivated by political bias. But Attorney General William Barr and Durham have disputed that conclusion, with Durham issuing a rare public statement saying that he and his team did “not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”
A page of handwritten notes from Pristap, dated the day of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s FBI interview in January 2017, were made public this spring, showing him wondering whether the goal of the interview was to get the then-incoming national security adviser to tell the truth or to catch him in a lie so that he could be charged with a crime or removed from his position.
Under a column labeled “DD,” likely short for “Deputy Director” in a reference to now-fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the FBI official wrote “we have a case with Flynn and Russians” and “our goal is to determine if Mike Flynn is going to tell the truth about his relationship with Russians.”
Beneath another column labeled “Afterwards,” the FBI official listed a number of thoughts about the impending Flynn interview that day.
“I agreed yesterday that we shouldn’t show Flynn [REDACTED] if he didn’t admit” but “I thought about it last night and I believe we should rethink this,” Priestap wrote. “What is our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
The FBI official also suggested, “If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ and have them decide … or, if initially lies, then we present him [REDACTED] and he admits it, document for DOJ, and let them decide how to address it.”
Flynn, also a target of the Russia investigation, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with a Russian envoy, but this year srarted to argue he is innocent and was set up by the FBI. The Justice Department then moved to drop the prosecution, but the judge overseeing the case, Emmet Sullivan, has resisted immediately doing so. The fight is currently playing out in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Recently declassified FBI records show the FBI used a counterintelligence briefing given to then-candidate Trump and Flynn as a pretext to aid their investigation into Trump, Flynn, and the campaign.
Priestap told Horowitz that he had considered whether the FBI should conduct defensive briefings for Trump’s campaign, but ultimately decided not to because “if someone on the campaign was engaged with the Russians, he/she would very likely change his/her tactics and/or otherwise seek to cover-up his/her activities, thereby preventing us from finding the truth.”
During the compilation of the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment after Trump’s victory, Priestap and the FBI’s intelligence section chief both wrote to the CIA to describe Steele as “reliable” as the FBI unsuccessfully pushed to include Steele’s allegations in the main body of the assessment. The dossier’s claims were ultimately added to a classified annex.
Horowitz’s lengthy December report criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the FISA warrants against Page and for the bureau’s reliance on Steele’s Democratic-funded and unverified dossier. Declassified footnotes now show the FBI was aware that Steele’s dossier might have been compromised by Russian disinformation.