The identity of the primary source for Christopher Steele remains elusive six months after the Justice Department inspector general’s report revealed that the individual disputed key allegations in former British spy’s salacious dossier.
The source, referred to as “Primary Sub-Source” in the watchdog report, is likely key to unraveling exactly how Steele came to peddle inaccurate information regarding Donald Trump and the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. But the Justice Department, FBI, and Steele have all withheld key details about the source.
Both the inspector general (IG) and special counsel’s report undermined Steele’s core allegation that Trump campaign associates conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. The IG report, released on Dec. 9, went further, saying that the dossier’s allegations regarding specific Trump associates may have been the product of a Russian disinformation campaign.
Steele told the FBI that he relied on one individual to collect information from a network of sub-sources, many of whom were in Russia.
The FBI and Justice Department tracked down and interviewed the source in January 2017, according to the IG report.
During the interview, the source disputed many of the dossier’s claims, saying that Steele embellished or misinterpreted information that ended up in the dossier, which the FBI used to obtain surveillance orders against former Trump aide Carter Page.
The source disputed several key allegations from the dossier, saying that Steele passed along rumor and innuendo as fact.
Steele’s dossier claim about a sex romp involving Trump in Moscow was “rumor and speculation” and that he had not been able to confirm the allegation, the source said, according to the IG report.
The source also disputed Steele’s reporting that Russian industrialist Igor Sechin had offered Carter Page a brokerage stake in a business deal in order to help relax sanctions against Russia. The source told the FBI that someone connected to Russian intelligence provided him information about Page through a text message, but that he never asserted that the Trump aide was offered a bribe.
“We reviewed the texts and did not find any discussion of a bribe,” the IG report said.
Page has vehemently denied ever meeting Sechin.
The IG report blasted the FBI and Justice Department for failing to inform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) about the source’s statements undermining the dossier. The FBI referred to the source in one of the surveillance applications as being “truthful,” but did not reveal that the source was candid with information that undercut Steele.
There are only a few clues about the source in the IG report and media.
The New York Times reported in April 2019 that Steele’s source was “a Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West.”
The co-founders of Fusion GPS, the firm that hired Steele on behalf of Democrats to investigate the Trump campaign, wrote in a book last year that Steele asserted that his source was well known to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials.
“Steele said that one of his collectors was among the finest he had ever worked with, an individual known to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement,” wrote Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the Fusion GPS executives.
They wrote that Steele vowed not to identify his source, but that they trusted the information he provided for the dossier.
“That anonymity ‘is a bit of a shame, really,’ Steele later told friends,” the Fusion GPS founders wrote.
“This is a remarkable person with a remarkable story who deserves a medal for service to the West,” they quoted Steele saying.
Steele testified in a British court proceeding in March that the source has worked with his firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, for several years and that he is paid a retainer of up to $5,000 per month.
Steele responded to the IG report in a statement on Dec. 10. He disputed the source’s claims about the dossier information and said that the statements “would be put in a very different light.”
“The ‘Primary Sub-Source’s debriefings by Orbis were meticulously documented and recorded,” Steele’s U.S.-based lawyers said in a statement.
Though the statement suggested that Steele had evidence that could back up his side of the story, in March Steele testified as part of a legal case in London that he no longer has documentation related to the dossier source. He said that his emails and other documents were “wiped” in late December 2016 and early January 2017.
Some Republican lawmakers have pushed for answers about the FBI and Justice Department’s interactions with the source.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he will focus on the FBI and Justice Department’s interactions with the source in order to find out why investigators failed to disclose information about the dossier in order to obtain surveillance warrants against Carter Page.
On April 20, Graham asked Attorney General William Barr to turn over FBI documents related to the source, who is identified as “Primary Sub-Source” in the IG report. Graham said in an interview on Fox News on Sunday that he wants to speak with the FBI and Justice Department officials who interacted with the source.
One FBI agent who took part in the initial interview with the source is reported to be Stephen Somma, a counterintelligence investigator in the New York Field Office. The IG report faulted Somma — who is identified as “Case Agent 1” — as being involved in some of the most “significant” missteps in the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign.
One former prosecutor who knows the identity of the Steele source is David Laufman, who served as chief of counterintelligence at the Justice Department until 2018. According to the IG report, Laufman arranged the initial interview with the source in January 2017. Laufman has been an outspoken critic of Trump and recently signed an open letter calling for Barr’s resignation.
Steele’s attorneys have not responded to multiple requests for comment. Laufman did not respond to a request for comment.
The FBI and Justice Department have remained tight-lipped about the source. The bureau declined comment on the matter.