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FBI Agent Quit Crossfire Hurricane Team After His Effort To Validate Christopher Steele Was Shut Down

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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  • A senior FBI official ordered an ‘enhanced validation review’ of dossier author Christopher Steele to be shut down, prompting a senior FBI agent to request a transfer off of the team investigating the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia. 
  • Joseph Pientka, the FBI agent, told a Senate panel last year that he initiated a review of Steele in November 2016. It was ordered shut down by Bill Priestap, the chief of FBI counterintelligence at the time. 
  • Pientka told Senate investigators that he requested a transfer from the Trump-Russia team back to the Washington Field Office. 
  • Priestap, who retired from the FBI in 2018, has been accused elsewhere of withholding information about Steele that undercuts the credibility of the dossier. 

A senior FBI agent requested a transfer from the team investigating the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russia after his request to validate Christopher Steele as a confidential source was shut down, he told a Senate panel last year, according to newly released transcripts.

Joseph Pientka, an FBI supervisory special agent, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Aug. 27 that Bill Priestap, who was chief of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, ordered the “enhanced validation review” to be shut down due to concerns about leaks.

Pientka said he initiated the review of Steele in November 2016, after the FBI cut ties with the former British spy because of his contacts with journalists.

By that point, the FBI had used information from a dossier compiled by Steele to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant against Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide who is accused in the dossier of being the Trump campaign’s conduit to the Kremlin.

Steele’s contacts with the media regarding the dossier raised concerns within the FBI, and led to the bureau cutting him off as a confidential human source. Michael Gaeta, who was Steele’s FBI handler, told the Senate panel that Steele’s actions made him “completely untrustworthy.”

Pientka said that he sought a review of Steele because of the dossier’s significance to the FISA applications and to Crossfire Hurricane, the name for the FBI’s counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign.

“I recognized the significance of his reporting, the use in a FISA application. I had questions about our intel validation was ongoing in the Counterintelligence Division, and all of that contributed to my professional disagreement,” he said.

“This is the process, this is what we do, this is what we always do.”

Pientka explained that the review he sought was separate from analysis that was continually conducted by intelligence analysts in the FBI’s counterintelligence division.

“My request was to the FBI director of intelligence for them to do what is considered an enhanced validation review, something outside and independent of the Counterintelligence Division.”

FBI Counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap, July 26, 2017. (Reuters)

Pientka said that he was told that the enhanced review was “turned off” at Priestap’s direction, which led him to request a transfer off of the Crossfire Hurricane team.

“I had a professional disagreement with stopping the enhanced validation review,” Pientka said.

“This was a concern that you were so passionate about that it made you terminate your association with the case, the team, and go back to the Washington Field Office?” a Senate staffer asked Pientka.

“It was,” he replied.

Pientka played a sizable role in the early months of Crossfire Hurricane, and helped with the investigation after returning to the Washington Field Office. Pientka helped pick the case agents that worked on the investigation and arranged a meeting in early October 2016 between investigators and Steele.

He was also the agent who conducted a briefing in August 2016 with then-candidate Donald Trump and Michael Flynn. The FBI wanted to use the briefing to collect information as part of the investigation into Flynn, who would later serve as Trump’s first national security adviser.

Pientka also accompanied Peter Strzok in a White House interview with Flynn on Jan. 24, 2017.

Flynn would later plead guilty to lying in that interview about his contacts with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak.

A report from the Justice Department’s inspector general said that Priestap and Strozk learned about derogatory information on Steele during trips to the U.K.

Some of Steele’s former colleagues said they had concerns about Steele’s judgment.

According to the IG report, while Steele’s former associates largely defended him as honest, some said that the former MI6 officer “[d]emonstrates lack of self-awareness, poor judgment,” was “underpinned by poor judgment,” and did not always validate his information.

According to the IG report, Priestap and Strzok shared the information they collected on Steele with other FBI investigators but did not put it into Steele’s source file. That meant that the information was not used as part of a validation review of Steele that was conducted in 2017. The information was also not included in any of the FISA applications granted against Carter Page.

According to a declassified footnote from the IG report, Priestap told investigators that he did not share the information about Steele because of an agreement he made with his British counterparts.

Priestap said he “may have made a commitment…not to document” information that Steele’s former employer provided about the retired spy as a condition for obtaining the information.

Sen. Lindsey Graham has accused Priestap of “whitewashing” information that undercut the credibility of the dossier.

According to Graham, Priestap failed to provide the Senate Intelligence Committee with accurate information about Steele’s primary dossier source, Igor Danchenko, during a briefing in February 2018. Graham said that Priestap did not disclose that FBI personnel who interviewed Danchenko in January 2017 believed that his statements contradicted parts of the dossier.

“You’ve got Bill Priestap on Feb. 15th, 2018, with four other people from the FBI briefing this Senate Intel Committee, completely whitewashing the truth about the reliability of the dossier,” Graham said in an interview on Fox News in August.

Priestap, who retired from the FBI in 2018, could not be reached for comment.

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