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Official At Liberal Think Tank Offered To Give Comey The Steele Dossier Before It Was Published, Emails Show

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  • An official at the Brookings Institution offered to provide James Comey with a copy of the dossier. 
  • Benjamin Wittes, the official, has emerged as one of Comey and the FBI’s most ardent defenders. He has never previously disclosed that he offered to assist the FBI in its investigation of the Trump campaign. 
  • Two Senate committees released Wittes’ email to Comey along with a large batch of FBI documents related to the Trump probe. 

An official at the Brookings Institution, a liberal foreign policy think tank, offered to provide James Comey with an apparent copy of the infamous Steele dossier weeks before it was published in early 2017, according to FBI emails released on Thursday.

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, emailed Comey, who was FBI director at the time, on Dec. 28, 2016, saying that he had received a “very strange document” from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal that contained allegations from a British intelligence firm regarding Donald Trump and Russia.

“I’m writing because a very strange document has crossed my desk that may — or may not — have implications for investigations you guys are conducting,” Wittes wrote to Comey at his email account, which used the alias Reinhold Niebuh.

Wittes said he received the document from Shane Harris, a reporter at the Journal at the time. He offered to put the FBI chief in contact with the journalist.

Wittes is the third Brookings Institution official known to have handled the dossier, authored by former British spy Christopher Steele, before BuzzFeed published it on Jan. 10, 2017.

Strobe Talbott, who was president of the think tank through 2017, communicated with Steele regarding the dossier beginning in late October 2016, Steele testified in British court proceedings.

Fiona Hill, a former official at Brookings who served in the Trump administration, told Congress that Talbott provided her a copy of the dossier weeks before Trump took office. Hill testified to lawmakers that she thought the dossier was packed with disinformation fed to Steele by Russians.

Some Republicans, including California Rep. Devin Nunes, have called for investigations into Brookings’ role in disseminating the dossier.

Wittes has emerged as a stalwart defender of Comey and other FBI officials he claims have been improperly smeared by President Trump. He disclosed in a post entitled “Six Thoughts in Defense Of James Comey” at Lawfare, the blog Wittes edits for Brookings, that he has long been friends with Comey.

Wittes posted a story to Lawfare on May 18, 2017, a week after Comey was fired as FBI director, describing conversations they had had months earlier.

Wittes wrote in the piece that, “Comey has never talked to me about a live investigative matter—and I’ve never asked him to.”

The Dec. 28, 2016, email indicates for the first time that Wittes offered to assist the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign.

Wittes’ description in his email to Comey closely matches that of the Steele dossier, which alleged that the Trump campaign conspired with the Kremlin to hack and release Democrats’ emails in order to influence the 2016 election.

“Under normal circumstances, I would simply assume that the document is either a fraud or that you guys already know all about it (Both may well be true, as it is.),” Wittes wrote.

“The wrinkle here is that the document — which purports to be a series of reports/dispatches by a private British intel company on Trump and Russia and the hacking and contains a number of highly-detailed accounts stuff that would be explosive if alleged publicly — is being furiously investigated by, at a minimum, the Wall Street Journal.”

Portion of Benjamin Wittes email to James Comey’s alias account (via Senate Homeland and Senate Finance Committees)

“I want to stress that I have NO idea if it is authentic, much less accurate. But I thought I would alert you to it in case, for some reason, it hasn’t made its way to your people long ago,” Wittes wrote.

Comey forwarded the email to other FBI officials, including then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and James Baker, who then served as general counsel.

It is not clear whether Wittes ended up providing Comey with a copy of the dossier. By that point, Steele had provided some of the memos from his dossier during meetings before the 2016 election. Comey had obtained some of the memos in a separate meeting with then-Sen. John McCain on Dec. 9, 2016.

Wittes did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate Homeland Security and Senate Finance Committees released the email along with a batch of FBI documents related to the bureau’s investigation of the Trump campaign.

The FBI relied heavily on information from Christopher Steele, the dossier author, as part of its investigation. The bureau cited Steele’s information in applications to obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants against Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Multiple investigations have since undercut the credibility of Steele and his dossier. A Justice Department inspector general’s investigation found that the FBI did not verify Steele’s allegations before using them to obtain the FISA warrants. Investigators also made 17 “significant” errors and omissions, many of them regarding the dossier, in the FISA applications.

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