The Justice Department has arrested a source for lying repeatedly to the FBI as agents investigated the infamous "Steele dossier," which was used to justify the investigation of former President Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russia.
The man, a Russian national named Igor Danchenko who works in the United States as an analyst, provided information that British ex-spy Christopher Steele would use in his dossier. Its contents were infamously leaked and alleged a conspiracy between Trump and his staff to coordinate and cooperate with the Russian government.
The dossier initially had roots in political opposition research, but it was eventually used by the FBI to justify secret surveillance of then–Trump aide Carter Page to try to determine whether he had been compromised by Russian interests.
Page was never charged with anything, and even at the time, the FBI made it clear that many of the allegations within the dossier had not been corroborated. But nevertheless, many people treated it as gospel, including some major news outlets.
On Thursday, the Justice Department released a grand jury indictment of Danchenko. He's charged with five counts of lying to the FBI. According to the indictment, Danchenko repeatedly lied in FBI interviews in order to conceal his role in passing along the information to Steele. Some of the information within the dossier may not have originated from Russian sources, but rather a public relations executive connected to the Democratic Party.
After the investigation did not lead to charges against Trump himself, the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigated the circumstances behind the FBI's various warrant applications with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to wiretap Page. In 2019, the OIG revealed that the FBI's warrant applications were full of blunders and omissions, and noted that even though the FBI acknowledged it couldn't corroborate the details of the Steele dossier, it was still using it to justify warrants to snoop on Page.
Subsequent investigations showed much bigger problems with the warrants the FBI submits to the FISC. It wasn't just about Page—the OIG found hundreds of problems with nearly all of the warrants the FBI was submitting to snoop on Americans. This should be seen as a big deal—the secrecy of the FISC means that Americans who are targeted for surveillance don't know they've been singled out and don't have any defense or due process to stop it. The court itself serves as oversight to protect citizens' Fourth Amendment rights. But until all of this came out, we had little idea how carelessly these warrants were written and reviewed.
A significant amount of the political disaster that ensued following Trump's election has been partially driven by the way the investigation of Page and others in Trump's circle has been handled. The Washington Post tries to cast this as a "Republicans pounce" opportunity because it "is likely to buttress Republican charges that Democrats and FBI agents intentionally or accidentally turned cheap partisan smears into a high-stakes national security investigation of a sitting president."
But isn't that what may well have happened here? It's something everybody should be angry about, because it could clearly happen again. As long as people's conception of the incident is clouded by their opinions of Trump, we may not see the kind of surveillance reforms necessary to keep the FISC from potential future political manipulation.