With GOP out of power, this federal lawsuit is one of the last remaining hopes to settle dossier mysteries
Chuck Ross, DCNF
- Lawyers for a group of Russian bankers have subpoenaed 22 people, including three prominent journalists, as part of their defamation lawsuit against Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm behind the Steele dossier.
- The lawsuit, which the owners of Alfa Bank filed in 2017, is one of the last remaining paths left to answer unresolved mysteries about the dossier.
- Earlier this week, the federal judge handling the lawsuit approved a request to ask the British government for permission to depose Christopher Steele.
With Republicans out of power in Washington, few paths remain to address the remaining mysteries about Russiagate and the Steele dossier, the dubious document that the FBI used to justify surveillance of the Trump campaign.
John Durham, a federal prosecutor, is conducting an investigation into the FBI’s probe of the Trump campaign and the dossier, but many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have turned sour on the probe.
Trump and congressional Republicans released a trove of records on the matter last year, but the document dumps have come to an end under Democratic control of Congress and the executive branch.
One lawsuit pending in federal court holds some promise for closure about the dossier.
The three owners of a bank in Russia, Alfa Bank, filed a defamation lawsuit in October 2017 against Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that commissioned the dossier.
The lawsuit has been mired in legal fights between lawyers for Fusion GPS and the bankers, Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan. But the lawsuit has recently entered the discovery phase, which could shake loose additional details about the dossier.
In a federal court filing this week, lawyers for the Russian bankers revealed that they have submitted subpoenas for 22 people, including David Corn, Michael Isikoff and Eric Lichtblau, three prominent journalists who wrote about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
On Tuesday, Judge Richard Leon, who is handling the lawsuit against Fusion, granted the bankers’ request to formally ask the British government to make dossier author Christopher Steele, a former British spy, available for a deposition for the legal proceedings.
The financiers are also battling with lawyers for Steele’s primary source of information, Igor Danchenko, over a subpoena for his deposition about his work on the dossier.
Interviews with Steele and Danchenko could yield crucial information about how they collected information for the dossier, and how it was passed to journalists and U.S. government officials before and after the 2016 election.
Danchenko’s insight could be especially key because he has contradicted some of Steele’s allegations in the dossier during interviews with the FBI in January 2017.
The Alfa Bank owners want to find the ultimate source of information for two specific claims about them that began circulating before the 2016 election.
Lawyers for Fusion GPS decried the sprawling subpoena list in a court filing last month.
They said Alfa Bank was a “campaign of harassment” by subpoenaing “a number of journalists, investigators, computer scientists and others who have dared to criticize Plaintiffs or Alfa.”
One allegation against Alfa Bank is from a Sept. 14, 2016, memo from Steele that said that the bankers had an “illicit” relationship with Vladimir Putin and had bribed the Russian leader decades earlier.
Danchenko, a Russia analyst who previously worked for Brookings Institution, obtained the information from one of his sub-sources in Russia.
The other claim centers on Alfa Bank’s computer servers that were first publicly discussed in news reports published on Oct. 31, 2016.
On Oct. 31, 2016, Slate reporter Franklin Foer published a story about a group of computer researchers who claimed to have uncovered a secret communications channel between Alfa and the Trump Organization. The researchers suggested the possibility that the two organizations used the covert system for election-related collusion.
The story fueled speculation at the time that the Trump campaign was conspiring with Russia to influence the election results. It would only be discovered years later that claims that originated with Steele and Fusion GPS had fueled much of that speculation.
As with the collusion claims, the allegations against Alfa Bank have been all but debunked in the years since they first surfaced.
A British judge ruled against Steele in July 2020, saying that the ex-spy’s allegations against Alfa Bank’s owners regarding Putin were “inaccurate or misleading.”
Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, testified in 2019 that the allegation about Alfa Bank’s computer servers was false. A report from the Justice Department’s inspector general said that the FBI investigated the allegation but determined by February 2017 that there was no connection between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization.
A key figure in the Alfa Bank saga is Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for Perkins Coie, the firm that hired Fusion GPS to investigate Trump.
Sussmann was a key conduit for the information about Alfa Bank’s computer servers. He has acknowledged that he was a source for the Slate article. Steele testified in a lawsuit filed against him by the Alfa bankers in the U.K. that Sussmann spoke with him about Alfa Bank in July 2016.
What remains unclear is who provided Sussmann information about Alfa Bank and who he shared it with. In addition to reporters, Sussmann provided the information in September 2016 to James Baker, who served as the FBI’s general counsel.
In Florida, lawyers for Alfa Bank have subpoenaed a group of computer scientists who reviewed the purported Alfa Bank computer records, including L. Jean Camp of the University of Indiana, Daniel Gillmore of the American Civil Liberties Union and Steven Bellovin of Columbia University.
The Alfa Bank owners have subpoenaed Sussmann and fellow Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias, who hired Fusion GPS in April 2016.
They have also subpoenaed multiple Fusion GPS employees, including the firm’s founders, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, as well as staffers Jason Felch, Laura Seago and Jacob Berkowitz.
In their court filing on Monday, the bankers’ attorneys said they had obtained some documents from the Democratic National Committee and Perkins Coie.
Daniel Jones, a former Senate staffer who worked with Fusion GPS and Steele to investigate Trump and Alfa Bank, has also turned over documents in the lawsuit, the lawyers said.
The New Yorker has reported that Jones shared information that he obtained from the computer scientists with a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The New Yorker also reported that Durham, the federal prosecutor, is investigating the dissemination of the Alfa Bank allegations. He has subpoenaed Jones as part of that probe, according to the magazine.
Jonathan Winer, a former State Department official, has also provided documents in response to a subpoena, according to lawyers for the bank owners.
Winer was Steele’s point of contact for the State Department. He was also a background source for Michael Isikoff and David Corn for articles they wrote about Steele’s allegations.
Isikoff and Corn, who write for Yahoo! News and Mother Jones, respectively, published two of the only stories prior to the 2016 election that relied on information directly from Christopher Steele.
Simpson, the Fusion GPS founder, arranged for the reporters and several others to speak with Steele in the weeks before the election.
Isikoff published a story on Sept. 23, 2016, a day after meeting Steele, that claimed that Trump aide Carter Page met with two sanctioned Kremlin insiders during a trip to Moscow in July 2016. Page vehemently denied the allegation.
Corn published an article on Oct. 31, 2016, based on an interview he had with Steele. Publication of the story led the FBI to cut ties with Steele because he disclosed that he was a confidential human source for the bureau.
Lichtblau reported for The New York Times on Oct. 31, 2016, that the FBI had investigated allegations about Alfa Bank’s computer servers and the Trump Organization. The story said the Times had obtained computer logs from two Alfa Bank servers.
All three of the reporters said through their attorneys that they would not comply with the subpoenas, citing First Amendment protections.