Steele dossier source arrested in Durham probe
The special counsel probing the origins of the investigation into ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia has brought false-statement charges against a Washington-based foreign policy researcher and Russian emigre who was a key source for an intelligence dossier that played an important role in the early stages of the FBI inquiry.
The researcher, Igor Danchenko, 43, was arrested Thursday in Northern Virginia on an indictment that special counsel John Durham obtained charging the Russian-born researcher with five felony counts of making false statements to the FBI.
Information from Danchenko was a central element of a series of reports from a former British spy, Christopher Steele, that the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign commissioned to detail alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russia.
Those reports, known as the Steele dossier, helped fuel the FBI probe and provided fodder for requests the law enforcement agency made to a secret surveillance court to obtain warrants to examine the communications of a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, Carter Page.
However, several claims in the dossier turned out to be false, prompting congressional, inspector general and criminal investigations into how the reports were compiled and why the U.S. government gave them such credence.
At a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday afternoon, prosecutors did not ask that Danchenko be detained as he awaits trial.
Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan ordered Danchenko’s release on a $100,000 unsecured bond.
A prosecutor, Michael Keilty, said that there was a plan for Danchenko to surrender on Thursday, but that because of “a press leak” the FBI arrested the defendant instead.
Prosecutors allege that in a series of interviews with the FBI, Danchenko fabricated details and altered the sequence of key events he described that related to the so-called dossier. The indictment also alleges that he was working closely with at least one individual close to Clinton’s presidential campaign and that Danchenko falsely denied having contact with that person.
Danchenko was first identified as Steele’s source amid a Senate Republican investigation that culminated in the final weeks of last year’s presidential election. Then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) released the transcript of an interview Danchenko conducted with the FBI in January 2017, in which he revealed that some of the most explosive allegations in the Steele dossier were based on hearsay and rumor.
The transcript was declassified by then-Attorney General William Barr shortly before the Justice Department handed it to Graham.
Though Graham didn’t identify Danchenko when he released the redacted interview summary, the document included enough identifying information that Danchenko was quickly revealed to be the unnamed Steele source.
Around that time, Graham released another document — also declassified by Barr — that included a synopsis of a counterintelligence investigation the FBI conducted into Danchenko from 2009 to 2011. The probe included an examination of whether Danchenko sought to obtain classified information on Russia’s behalf, but it was closed without any findings, and Danchenko has continued to reside in the United States.
Yet Trump’s allies pointed to the closed investigation to label Danchenko a “spy” and accuse Democrats and the FBI of weaponizing Russian disinformation by deploying the dossier to obtain the surveillance warrant on Page.
The new indictment does not allege that Danchenko was working for the Russian government or Russian interests, but it hints that he might have been. The charges say that in June 2016, a public relations executive and Democratic activist with close ties to the Clinton campaign wrote an email that said of Danchenko: “He is too young for KGB. But I think he worked for FSB. Since he told me he spent two years in Iran. And when I first met him he knew more about me than I did. [winking emoticon].”
The P.R. executive who offered the candid assessment of Danchenko goes unnamed in the indictment, but he is the longtime Democratic activist and Russia relations expert Chuck Dolan Jr., an attorney for Dolan confirmed on Thursday.
“Chuck understands and appreciates your interest. I can confirm that he is PR Executive-1 in the indictment,” the lawyer, Ralph Drury Martin, said in a statement. “As he is a witness in an ongoing case, it would not be appropriate for Chuck to comment further on the allegations in the indictment at this time.”
Dolan is not charged in the case.
He served in the 1980s as executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, and later as Virginia state chairman of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 and as an adviser to John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 and Hillary Clinton’s in 2008. Dolan, a former congressional staffer, worked more recently as a senior vice president at the public affairs firms Ketchum, Prism and kglobal.
At Ketchum, Dolan worked on the firm’s lobbying efforts for the Russian Federation, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act filings. His web page at kglobal, where he was a senior adviser, was taken down shortly after news broke of Danchenko’s arrest.
In Thursday’s hearing, Keilty said the government believed Danchenko had been in contact with individuals at the Russian Embassy on several occasions. The prosecutor called that “concerning” and urged that Danchenko be put on location monitoring for that reason and others.
Buchanan agreed to that, but after Keilty said that the location monitoring probably couldn’t be arranged Thursday and that prosecutors didn’t object to Danchenko’s release in the meantime, the judge seemed perturbed and changed her mind.
“Then, you couldn’t be very concerned” about him fleeing, Buchanan said. “In that case, I’ll waive the electronic monitoring.”
Buchanan ordered Danchenko to stay away from possible witnesses in the case, but the lack of monitoring means he might be able to arrange such a rendezvous without the FBI’s awareness.
As Danchenko left the courthouse a couple of hours after the hearing, he ignored questions from reporters. A lawyer for Danchenko, Mark Schamel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The next hearing in the case is set for next Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Trenga.
Danchenko is the third person to face criminal charges in the Durham probe, which Barr gave formal special counsel status in October 2020.
Last month, Durham brought an indictment against D.C. lawyer Michael Sussmann that alleged he made a false statement to the FBI’s general counsel early in the Russia probe. Sussmann, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of misleading the FBI by denying that he was representing the Democratic National Committee or any other client when he passed along suspicions about potential ties between computers at Trump Tower and a Russian bank.
In January of this year, a former FBI attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, was sentenced to a year probation for altering an email related to a surveillance request that was part of the Russia investigation.