The FBI released for the first time Friday night a two-page summary former FBI Director James Comey used to brief President-elect Donald Trump nearly two years ago on a so-called dossier about Trump’s ties to Russia.
The version made public Friday could reignite previous criticism from Republicans and Trump allies that the FBI was too vague in its description of the fact that the dossier was funded by the campaign of Trump’s nemesis in the 2016 presidential election, Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as the Democratic National Committee.
Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017, acknowledged during a book tour earlier this year that he did not inform Trump who paid for the research.
The brief passage the FBI left unredacted in the newly released memo gives some background on the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, although Steele’s name does not actually appear in the newly released version. The released portion of the synopsis is vague about who financed the project, referring to it as sponsored by “private clients.”
“An FBI source … volunteered highly politically sensitive information … on Russian influence efforts aimed at the US presidential election,” the memo labeled as “Annex A” says. “The source is an executive of a private business intelligence firm and a former employee of a friendly intelligence service who has been compensated for previous reporting over the past three years. The source maintains and collects information from a layered network of identified and unidentified subsources, some of which has been corroborated in the past. The source collected this information on behalf of private clients and was not compensated for it by the FBI.”
“The source’s reporting appears to have been acquired by multiple Western press organizations starting in October,” the document from January 2017 declares.
Comey has said he did not show or give Trump the memo, but used it as a reference when briefing him on the dossier, which U.S. intelligence officials feared Russia might try to use as blackmail against Trump. The synopsis was also used to brief President Barack Obama, officials have said.
Republicans had previously complained that the FBI failed to inform a federal court about the dossier’s provenance — that Steele’s work was commissioned by Fusion GPS, a research firm that had been hired by the Clinton campaign’s law firm, Perkins Coie, to dig up information about Trump’s business relationships overseas. Based in part on the dossier’s information, the court granted an FBI application to surveil a former Trump campaign associate in October 2016.
Aspects of the FBI’s surveillance application have since been released and revealed that the FBI did inform the court that Steele had political animus toward Trump and that it was funded by a politically motivated backer.
The document was released Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by a POLITICO reporter and the James Madison Project, a pro-transparency group.
In January, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta ruled that that the FBI was legally justified in refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any records related to the dossier, despite several tweets from President Donald Trump that described the document as “fake” or “discredited.”
However, shortly after that ruling, Trump declassified a House Intelligence Committee memo that included various claims about the FBI’s handling of the dossier. In August, Mehta said the official release of that material vitiated the FBI’s ability to claim that it had offered no public confirmation of its role in vetting or verifying the dossier, a collection of accurate, inaccurate, unverified and sometimes salacious claims about ties between Russia and various figures in Trump’s circle.
“It remains no longer logical nor plausible for the FBI to maintain that it cannot confirm nor deny the existence of documents” related to attempts to verify information in the dossier, Mehta wrote.
The FBI withheld the remainder of the two-page synopsis on a variety of grounds, including that the material remains classified either Secret or Top Secret. The law enforcement agency also indicated the information is exempt from release because it pertains to ongoing investigations or court proceedings, originated with a confidential source or describes confidential investigative techniques or procedures.
The FBI said Friday it lacked any records indicating final conclusions about any information in the dossier, said Brad Moss, one of the attorneys pressing for release of the records.
“After two years of legal games, the FBI today finally confirmed two pieces of speculation about the scandalous allegations regarding which Director Comey briefed President Trump in January 2017: all of those allegations remain part of the ongoing Russian ‘collusion’ investigation, and the FBI has not rendered final determinations about the accuracy of any of them,” Moss said. “Far from being debunked, the issues that raised concerns for the Intelligence Community in 2017 remain unresolved to this day.”
Moss said he plans to challenge the FBI’s withholdings in the case and to ask Mehta to order more of the information released.