After Russia collusion controversy, FBI faces ‘red flag’ concerns over vetting informants

Back in the summer of 2007, a well-respected FBI executive marched up to Capitol Hill to assure members of Congress that the bureau had reformed and modernized its management of human sources, more commonly known as informants.

“Both the Attorney General and the Director have made clear their expectations that the FBI’s Confidential Human Source Program must rise to the challenge of our current mission, integrate fully with the broader intelligence community, and set a standard for integrity and quality,” Assistant Director for Intelligence Wayne M. Murphy testified.

Appearing then before subcommittee led by now-House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, Murphy laid out an impressive set of new rules governing how the FBI would vet, share and utilize human sources, including a new manual for managing informants and new training.

“The validation process will ensure every FBI source is subjected to a level of validation and provides the capability to evaluate sources in a broader national context and make decisions accordingly,” Murphy told the lawmakers.

A dozen years later, those reforms and the FBI’s adherence to them are coming under renewed scrutiny after one of the bureau’s most infamous cases, the Russia collusion investigation, relied on an overtly partisan informant with only “minimally” valuable intelligence to secure a warrant to spy on the Trump presidential campaign at the end of the 2016 election.

Multiple sources confirm the Justice Department inspector general is putting the finishing touches on an investigative report raising concerns about the FBI’s maintenance of human source validation reports, its vetting of sources and its handling of red flags about informants.

The review, expected to be released as early as this month, does not focus specifically on the work of British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, whose Hillary Clinton-funded dossier formed the cornerstone evidence the FBI used to justify securing an October 2016 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant targeting ex-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The warrant, renewed three times, allowed the bureau to gather intelligence for nearly a year on the Trump campaign, transition and early administration in search of evidence they might be colluding with Russia to hijack the 2016 election or American foreign policy.

No such evidence was found, and only months after the probe began did the public learn that Steele had been terminated as a source early in the investigation for leaking and his dossier funded by Trump’s rivals at the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee. Despite those warnings, Steele’s evidence continued to be represented as credible to the courts.

While Steele’s not the focus, the IG report is expected to lay out missteps, failures and a lack of adherence to the very reforms Murphy laid out for the bureau’s modern day informant network.

A source familiar with the preliminary findings says the IG appears to have identified a pattern of FBI agents ignoring red flags raised about sources during the course of investigations or from other intelligence agencies.

In addition, there is some concern that human source validation reports were incomplete or outdated, the source said.

Preliminary IG findings often go through revisions before the publication of a final report, as the FBI and DOJ react to conclusions. But if the final report does confirm the failure to adhere to red flags and vetting procedures, it is certain to lead to new oversight in Congress, possibly by Nadler’s committee or the Senate Judiciary Committee led by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

And the missed warning signs about Steele may ultimately be viewed and understood in a broader context of FBI’s systemic failures to react to red flags about informants.

Reporting I did earlier this year exposed how the FBI was alerted on Oct. 13, 2016  — eight days before Steele’s dossier was used to support the first FISA warrant — that the FBI informant had traveled to the State Department to brief a senior official named Kathleen Kavalec about his investigative work on Trump.

During the course of his meeting, Steele divulged he had an Election Day deadline to get his information out, was working with the FBI and also was talking to major news media. He also provided evidence of a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Trump and Putin were communicating via a secret server inside Russia’s Alfa Bank.

The State Department alerted the FBI to the contact. And separately, a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr warned that Steele appeared to be “desperate” to defeat Trump in the election and likely was working in some capacity with Clinton’s campaigns.

Despite those red flags, the FBI proceeded to use Steele and his work to support the FISA warrant on Oct. 21, 2016, even telling the judges the bureau had no derogatory information about his reliability or credibility as an informant.

More recently, congressional sources were briefed in a non-classified setting and told the United States possesses information that British intelligence offered a caution about Steele and his reliance on so-called sub-sources as early as 2015, according to an eyewitness to that briefing.

Such information, if corroborated and made public, could further change the narrative about the Russia case and the FBI’s larger use of human sources.

Earlier this year, the DOJ released a highly redacted version of Steele’s own source validation report from his time working as an informant in the Russia probe. The report appears to have been completed well after Steele was deactivated on Nov. 1, 2016 for leaking to the news media because it lists database checks made in February 2017.

But the report makes clear the FBI only had “medium” confidence that Steele had furthered their investigation and that his intelligence was only “minimally corroborated.”

That’s not a foundation, many experts see in retrospect, upon which the FBI should have built one of its most sensitive counterintelligence cases in the last decade.