The last political scandal of the decade was arguably the largest as well. We almost didn’t know about it. And the country’s political class seems intent on leaving it behind. That would be a mistake.
To recap: The FBI submitted inaccurate, incomplete, unsupported and even intentionally falsified information to justify its surveillance of the 2016 Trump campaign, according to the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Justice. Worse, the FBI relied on the so-called Steele dossier, a deeply flawed piece of opposition research funded by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee to secure authorization from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to spy on onetime Trump campaign aide Carter Page. FBI leadership did this despite knowing that the dossier, compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, was extremely dubious, if not a work of pure fiction.
The partisan Steele document played “a central and essential role” in the FBI’s warrant application, Inspector General Michael Horowitz told Congress, adding further that it was not until the bureau presented the dossier that the court determined there was enough “evidence” to spy on Page.
Yet the public knows the truth of what happened only because of the diligence of the inspector general and various lawmakers. Members of the national press, who should have played a lead role in uncovering FBI malfeasance in the 2016 election, not only missed the story entirely, but they acted also as the unofficial public relations arm of the intelligence community. Reporters and commentators alike have spent the past three years repeating uncritically a number of false claims originating from within the intelligence community while also condemning vigorously all suggestions that members of the FBI may have behaved unethically during the 2016 election.
In January 2017, for example, BuzzFeed News took the momentous step of publishing the 35-page Steele dossier in its entirety, despite the fact that its most salacious claims were unverified. The decision was made all the more extraordinary by the fact that BuzzFeed’s editors acknowledged that they had not verified the allegations and that the document contained errors and likely falsehoods.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was not entirely wrong, then, when she said that year that the Steele dossier was “completely unverified.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter scolded her for casting doubt on the document that the FBI used to get authorization to spy on the Trump campaign.
“That is misinformation that you’re spreading on my program, Kellyanne, and I don’t appreciate it,” said Stelter, host of the ironically named show Reliable Sources.
Conway responded by noting, more accurately, that the “entire dossier has not been verified.”
The same year, congressman Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, held a surprise news conference in which he reported that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” The California representative also released a secret memo alleging the FBI unethically (and possibly illegally) targeted the Trump campaign. Like Conway, Nunes was taken to the woodshed by the media, which berated him for daring to suggest wrongdoing by the intelligence community.
“Let’s speak English here,” said MSNBC’s Brian Williams of the congressman’s news conference, “[Nunes] could not have injected more suspicion into his remarks.”
BBC’s Katty Kay said Nunes “has really tossed a bomb. … I can’t believe for a moment they’re happy at the FBI.”
“Has Chairman Nunes so damaged the credibility of the intelligence committee that they should just shut down that investigation?” asked disgraced former NBC host Matt Lauer.
As for the congressman’s memo detailing possible wrongdoing by the FBI, MSNBC contributor Jill Wine-Banks called it a “complete dud.”
“It’s pretty much a dud,” said CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez. “It’s kind of a dud.”
MSNBC’s Ari Melber said, “I prefer really big, revealing documents to really narrow duds. This looks like a dud. … I can tell you from reading this memo and consulting with a wide array of experts: It’s a dud.”
“Nothing,” he insisted elsewhere on the network. “A dud.”
In 2017, President Donald Trump said the dossier was “discredited” and “phony,” inspiring former Obama State Department official and CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto to rush to the document’s defense.
“Once again,” Sciutto reported, “Trump’s claim the dossier is discredited has been discredited. In fact, U.S. intel has corroborated portions.”
CNN also reported at the time, “Officials familiar with the process say even if the application to monitor Page included information from the dossier, it would only be after the FBI had corroborated the information through its own investigation.”
Not according to the inspector general.
“We found that the FBI did not have information corroborating the specific allegations against Carter Page in Steele’s reporting when it relied upon his reports in the first FISA application or subsequent renewal applications,” the report said.
The inspector general also said that what little information was corroborated by the FBI related mostly “to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”
Bureau operatives also “overstated” Steele’s professional history when seeking authorization to spy on Page. Nevertheless, then-FBI Director James Comey signed off on the surveillance application.
“[Comey] said that simply because the information regarding Page was uncorroborated at the time of the application did not mean that it was unreliable,” reads the Horowitz report.
In 2018, CNN’s Perez maintained that it just “isn’t true” to claim the dossier is “discredited.”
In reality, a subsource for the FBI said the dossier was mostly junk, according to the inspector general report. Also, Horowitz said specifically his team found that the FBI’s “receipt of Steele’s election reporting on September 19, 2016, played a central and essential role in the FBI’s and Department’s decision to seek the FISA order” against Page. The notion that Page coordinated with the Kremlin “relied entirely on information from Steele,” the report added.
The news media’s default position since the 2016 election has been to suggest (or report outright) that everything the FBI did during the presidential election was aboveboard. Everything clearly was not.
U.S. intelligence operatives used “unsupported” and intentionally falsified data to spy on a presidential campaign. FBI leadership signed off on it, while many others in positions of power either looked the other way or voiced support. The dossier used to justify the spying would later give life to the costly and ultimately pointless Russia collusion hoax, which alleged that the Kremlin installed the president of the United States in the White House. All the while, talking points proffered by members of the intelligence community went unchallenged by an all-too-eager press, despite the fact that it was clear back in early 2017 that things were not as they seemed.
When House Republicans in 2018 released a secret memo accusing FBI and Justice Department officials of abusing their surveillance powers, news leaders again took the position that the revelations were a snoozer. Members of the press also heaped praise on the operatives behind the spying effort.
“What exactly were House Republicans hoping to accomplish by demanding the full release of these memos?” asked Meet the Press host Chuck Todd. “Nothing I’ve read seems to change Comey’s story, and if anything, these memos give more, not less, credence to the dossier.”
At CNN, Sciutto assured in a tweet that the Steele dossier was just “one element of — not the only — intel [the] FBI used to justify [the] FISA warrant to monitor Carter Page,” adding that the FBI “would further corroborate information in [the] dossier on its own before using such intel to justify the FISA warrant.”
The New Yorker, meanwhile, published a lengthy exposé by Democratic activist Jane Mayer portraying Steele as some sort of James Bond-esque hero fighting a covert, one-man war against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The profile, titled “Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier,” came on the heels of Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina referring Steele to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.
“Both the criminal referral and Nunes’ report used secret evidence to malign Steele while providing no means for his defenders to respond without breaching national-security secrets,” Mayer wrote.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot gobbled up Mayer’s Steele apologia, claiming her “deep dive confirms (in case there was any doubt) that the Steele Dossier is way more credible than the Nunes memo.”
He claimed later for good measure, “The Steele dossier looks more credible all the time.”
As for the criminal referral, Graham and Grassley were pilloried for that decision.
It is “entirely inappropriate,” said the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin.
“The criminal referral,” said CNN legal analyst Renato Mariotti, “doesn’t appear to be a legitimate effort to alert the FBI of criminal activity.” He explained elsewhere his gobsmacking standard for credibility, saying, “The dossier isn’t bogus, since parts of it have been confirmed.”
CNN crime and justice correspondent Shimon Prokupecz claimed incorrectly around this time that “Republicans were trying to claim that the dossier was key to getting the FISA, the surveillance warrant for Carter Page. But the Democrats’ memo clearly shows it wasn’t key.”
Former U.S. director of national intelligence and CNN national security analyst James Clapper said, “Even the earlier version of the redacted FISA authorization to me had enough information in it to indicate that the dossier was certainly not used as the primary source.”
This is not true, according to the inspector general, but the former intelligence officials who have spent the last three years pushing the Russian collusion story knew that. Former officials such as Comey, who said on national television in 2018 of an unverified document he knew to be highly unreliable: “I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know.”
The former director of the FBI willfully repeated the most salacious parts of the Steele dossier. He did this knowing there was no evidence to back the claims; he did this knowing the claims were most likely false; he did this knowing the dossier was largely a political hack job. Comey did this with no fear of pushback or scrutiny from members of the press.
Top CNBC political reporter John Harwood, for example, promoted a Lawfare blog post in 2018, sharing its key conclusion, which states, “The dossier holds up well over time, and none of it, to our knowledge, has been disproven.”
When reporters were not defending the contents of the dossier, they were disputing the notion that it was an essential part of the FBI’s justification for spying on the Trump campaign.
“I am telling you the dossier was not used as the basis for a FISA warrant on Carter Page,” said former Wall Street Journal and current Washington Post reporter Shane Harris.
NBC News’ Ken Dilanian wrote an article defending the FBI’s use of the dossier and its efforts to spy on the Trump campaign.
“Why Team Trump is wrong about Carter Page, the dossier and that secret warrant,” reads the headline. Its subhead reads, “Mueller’s Russia probe wasn’t launched because of Carter Page, and the dossier compiled by an ex-spy was only part of the evidence cited to get a warrant.”
The dossier “formed only a smart part of the evidence” against Page, asserted Dilanian.
Again, not true. The dossier played a “critical and essential role.”
Later in 2018, Dilanian changed it up a bit by promoting a Daily Beast article titled “FBI Would’ve Been Derelict Not to Use Steele Dossier for the Carter Page FISA Warrant” that argues the bureau had no choice but to submit the unverified political document. Dilanian called the article a “devastating takedown.”
Former MSNBC analyst and lead impeachment investigator Daniel Goldman tweeted in response to the president characterizing the dossier as “fake”: “What lying? Nothing in the dossier has proved to be false (including your pee tape). But we can agree that we all look forward to the facts coming out.”
Reuters national security correspondent Jonathan Landay also claimed the “Dossier played [a] minor role in [the] Page FISA warrant.”
“Nothing in the Steele dossier about Page has been disproven,” said Politico national security correspondent Natasha Bertrand.
Fast-forward to the release of the Horowitz report. Nearly everything we were told by the press was wrong:
The highly unreliable Steele dossier was essential to the FBI’s spying efforts.
There was deliberate surveillance abuse and concealment by the FBI.
The bureau’s reliance on a dubious piece of political opposition research triggered the Russian collusion hunt, which ended with a pfft, but not until after more than two years of bogus allegations and false news reporting.
Do not hold your breath waiting for an apology from the reporters who got it wrong. Do not expect a mea culpa from the people who uncritically parroted everything they were told by intelligence operatives. Some journalists are still defending their debunked speculation.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo, for example, said the report does not show “Trump as victim. Trump even says that that’s what this says. It doesn’t. He’s lying to you about the report. … He’s lying to you.”
Elsewhere at CNN, an “analysis” by Katelyn Polantz claimed that “many of the claims by Steele, a former British spy, have held up over time, or have proven to be at least partially true.”
The inspector general report is a refutation of not just national newsrooms, many of which have spent the last three years mocking and excoriating anyone who suggested that the FBI behaved unethically in the election, but also of the intelligence community, which has flooded the airwaves the last few years with a mountain of misinformation. Of the two, the national media’s unflinching faith in practically every statement uttered either officially or on background by members of the intelligence community is arguably the darkest and most disturbing subplot to this story. Intelligence officials are expected to stretch the truth and lie. Reporters are not. Worse, reporters should know better than to trust whatever they hear from members of the intelligence community.
Indeed, of the many disturbing trends in the Trump era, none are so alarming as the media’s unswerving deference to current and former members of the intelligence community. They can be perjurers, power abusers, perhaps even killers-by-drone, but as long as they oppose Trump, they can expect journalists to give them a sympathetic ear.
This politically motivated deference explains why something as thin as the Russian collusion story lasted for as long as it did. It explains also why it took an inspector general report to uncover what an army of reporters could not.
Becket Adams is a senior commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.