How the FBI Lost, Found, and Rewarded the Alleged Russian Spy Pivotal to Surveilling Trump
Twelve years ago, FBI agents in Baltimore sought to wiretap former Brookings Institution analyst Igor Danchenko on suspicions he was spying for Russia. But the counterintelligence analyst they were assigned to work with â€’ Brian Auten â€’ told them he could not find their target and assumed the Russian national had fled back to Moscow.
But Danchenko had not left the U.S., court documents show. He was living in the Washington area. In fact, he had been arrested in Maryland in 2013 by federal Park Police for being drunk and disorderly, something the FBI analyst could have easily discovered by searching federal law enforcement databases. Clueless, the FBI closed its espionage case on Danchenko.
Auten would quickly rise to become the FBI’s top Russian analyst. In 2016 and 2017, he failed to properly vet the Steele dossier, a collection of salacious allegations created for Hillary Clinton’s campaign which sought to tie Donald Trump to the Kremlin, before clearing it as the central piece of evidence used by the FBI to obtain warrants to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Working out of headquarters as a supervisor, Auten knew Danchenko helped Christopher Steele compile the dossier while living in the area. But instead of contacting the Baltimore agents, Auten secretly groomed him as an informant, arranging payments of $220,000 to target Donald Trump and his former aide Page.
One result: Danchenko, the suspected Russian spy, falsely accused Page, a former U.S. Navy office who had previously helped the FBI, of being a Russian spy in the dossier.
Auten also never informed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about the FBI’s longstanding concerns about Danchenko.
Like the Baltimore agents, investigators at FBI headquarters relied on Auten to build their counterintelligence cases on Page and three other Trump advisers. Auten provided the reports and memos they used to establish probable cause in each case. Auten also supported investigators working on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
Auten’s conduct was first singled out for rebuke by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who in 2019 issued a report detailing how Auten cut corners in the dossier verification process. Horowitz referred Auten to the FBI for discipline, which does not appear to have been administered.
His earlier and deeper connections to Danchenko have only been more recently revealed in the report issued by Special Counsel John Durham. His findings suggest that if Auten had done his job over a decade ago, chances are the now-discredited dossier never would have been created and used by the FBI to eavesdrop on Page and help launch the Russiagate probe. It’s likely that Danchenko, the main source of the dossier’s allegations, would have been deported years earlier and flagged in the system, according to the recently released Durham Report.
The embattled analyst was recommended for suspension from the bureau last year, and his case has been under disciplinary review for several months. Contacted by RealClearInvestigations, an FBI spokeswoman declined to say if Auten has been suspended. “In keeping with our usual practice,” she said, “we have no comment on personnel matters.”
According to the Durham Report, Danchenko came onto the radar of agents working out of the Baltimore field office in 2010 after two former Brookings colleagues entering the government told the FBI that he had solicited classified information.
The agents subsequently opened an espionage case after discovering Danchenko had previous contacts with the Russian Embassy and known Russian intelligence officers.
“In particular, the FBI learned that in September 2006, Danchenko informed one Russian intelligence officer that he had an interest in entering the Russian diplomatic service,” the report stated. “Four days later, the intelligence officer contacted Danchenko and informed him that they could meet that day to work ‘on the documents and then think about future plans.’”
The next month, Danchenko contacted the intelligence officer “so the documents can be placed in [the following day’s] diplomatic mail pouch,” according to the report.
In addition, Danchenko had been identified as an associate of two other espionage suspects, Durham learned from a review of his case file.
In July 2010, the FBI initiated a request to obtain a FISA warrant to conduct surveillance on Danchenko. Auten helped research Danchenko and provided information for wiretap applications. However, the investigation was soon closed after the FBI incorrectly concluded Danchenko had left the country in September 2010. Danchenko and his wife continued to reside openly in the Washington area.
But the probe wasn’t completely dead. In 2012, Auten exchanged emails with one of the Baltimore agents in which they speculated whether Danchenko had actually left the country. Then in 2013, the U.S. Park Police arrested Danchenko in Greenbelt, Md., on drunk-and-disorderly charges, court records first obtained by RCI show.
Danchenko’s case was visible in the federal law enforcement database and prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who years later, as acting attorney general, would sign one of the 2017 applications to renew a wiretap targeting Page and authorize an expansion of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation.
The Russian-born Danchenko, who was living in the U.S. on a work visa, was released from jail on the condition he undergo drug testing and “participate in a program of substance abuse therapy and counseling,” as well as “mental health counseling,” the records show. His lawyer asked the court to postpone his trial and let him travel to Moscow “as a condition of his employment.” The Russian trips were granted without objection from Rosenstein. Danchenko ended up several months later entering into a plea agreement and paying fines.
Despite the flurry of legal records generated on Danchenko in the federal system, it is not clear why the FBI failed to take note of his presence in the country. What the record does show is that the bureau did not reopen the espionage case against him.
Danchenko reappeared on Auten’s radar in late 2016 as he and the FBI were using the Steele dossier he helped create on Trump to seek warrants to spy on Page.
Auten identified his old espionage target in December 2016 as the “primary subsource” of the document. Instead of wiretapping Danchenko, the FBI recruited him as an informant and paid him $220,000 to help the bureau continue wiretapping the former Trump aide. FBI headquarters proposed paying Danchenko an additional $300,000 even as Durham was actively investigating him as the “linchpin to the uncorroborated allegations contained in the Steele Reports.” After asking officials at FBI headquarters about the bureau’s relationship with Danchenko, Durham determined that they were unable to justify keeping him open as a confidential source, “much less making hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to him.”
After examining FBI documents, Durham discovered that Auten interviewed Danchenko over three days in January 2017 as part of a plan to recruit him as a paid informant, despite the unresolved counterespionage investigation. Working with then-DOJ official David Laufman, the FBI offered immunity from prosecution to the longtime spy suspect and invited his lawyer to sit with him during the interviews.
“If this recruitment was successful, the FBI planned to mine Danchenko for information that was corroborative of the damaging allegations about President-elect Trump in the Steele Reports,” Durham said in his report.
Auten confessed to Durham that Danchenko “was not able to provide any corroborative evidence related to any substantive allegation contained in the Steele Reports â€’ and critically â€’ was unable to corroborate any of the FBI’s assertions contained in the Carter Page FISA applications,” according to the Durham report (emphasis in the original).
Danchenko was kept on the FBI payroll for more than three years.
In internal FBI documents, Danchenko’s handling agent Kevin Helson incorrectly stated that there was no “derogatory” information associated with Danchenko and that he had not been a prior subject of an FBI investigation.
“This was clearly not true as there had previously been the unresolved Baltimore FBI counterespionage investigation of Danchenko that was only closed because it was believed he had left the country and returned to Russia,” Durham pointed out.
Agent Helson later learned that the informant he was assigned to handle had been investigated as a suspected spy. However, Auten advised Helson that the espionage case against Danchenko was “interesting, but was not a significant” matter, according to the Durham report.
“Notably,” the report added, “Auten did not inform Helson that he had previously assisted in the Baltimore investigation.”
A Suspected Kremlin Agent ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’
The Baltimore agents were shocked to learn from Durham’s office that Danchenko had been signed up as a confidential FBI source. One of them interviewed by Durham’s investigators believed Danchenko was a Kremlin agent “hiding in plain sight” in the U.S., while frequently traveling overseas to be debriefed by Russian intelligence. The other Baltimore agent said the counterintelligence case on Danchenko remained unresolved and, in her opinion, “certainly a lot more investigation” should have been conducted on Danchenko.
“It is extremely concerning that the FBI failed to deal with the prior unresolved counterespionage case on Danchenko,” Durham concluded in his report.
“Given Danchenko’s known contacts with Russian intelligence officers and his documented prior pitch [to colleagues at Democratic think tank Brookings] for classified information, the Crossfire Hurricane team’s failure to properly consider and address the espionage case prior to opening Danchenko as a CHS [confidential human source] is difficult to explain, particularly given their awareness that Danchenko was the linchpin to the uncorroborated allegations contained in the Steele Reports,” the special prosecutor added. Crossfire Hurricane was the code name for the FBI’s Russia investigation.
In an RCI interview, Danchenko’s lawyer denied his client ever spied for the Russian government. He said Danchenko feared Russian President Vladimir Putin and was concerned for his personal safety. However, Durham examined immigration records which revealed that Danchenko lived in the U.S. but traveled frequently to Russia, casting doubts about his security concerns.
Yet in sworn affidavits to obtain the FISA warrants targeting Page, FBI agents led judges on the secret surveillance court to believe Danchenko was “Russian-based” – and therefore presumably more credible as a source of the allegations that Page was a Russian agent. By 2017, Auten knew the “Russian-based” claim was untrue. Even so, he let case agents slip it into two FISA renewal requests targeting Page. And so the “Russian-based” fraud lived on through 2017.
Auten assured the court that Danchenko was “truthful and cooperative,” never telling the judges about unresolved questions that made him a suspected Russian agent.
And Auten’s imprimatur carried great weight. In Durham’s telling, Auten was known internally as one of the “Triumvirate of Control” in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, along with senior counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and intelligence section chief Jonathan Moffa. Some case agents working under them believed the surveillance of Page was a “dry hole,” but the “triumvirate” insisted they continue secretly intercepting his emails, text messages, and other communications, according to Durham.
On Sept. 19, 2016, the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team formally received a dossier report alleging that Page had held secret meetings with sanctioned Kremlin officials in Moscow earlier that summer in which they allegedly discussed lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia. That same day, an anxious Auten urged department lawyers to consider including the dossier report as part of the initial FISA application targeting Page.
In an email to attorneys, Auten forwarded an excerpt from the dossier report and asked, “Does this put us at least *that* much closer to a full FISA on [Page]?”
The attorneys thought it was a “close call” when they first discussed a FISA targeting Page in early August, but the dossier report in September “pushed it over” the line in terms of establishing probable cause.
Except that the dossier allegation about secret Kremlin meetings was bunk. Auten knew there were serious doubts about it â€’ yet withheld those concerns from FISA judges.
On Oct. 17, 2016, Auten received an email alerting him to a conversation an informant covertly recorded with Page that day in which Page “outright denied” meeting with the Russian officials â€’ or even knowing them.
“Nevertheless,” Durham noted, “Page’s exculpatory statements were not included in the initial FISA application signed just four days later.”
Before the application was submitted, Auten also was aware that the dossier was being funded and promoted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
On Sept. 2, 2016, CIA personnel briefed Auten at FBI headquarters about credible foreign intelligence they received about the Clinton campaign’s machinations. Yet Auten took no steps to analyze the intelligence and how it might impact the Trump campaign investigation and surveillance requests. Nor did he inform the FISA court about it. Asked why he failed to disclose the “Clinton plan” intelligence, Auten told Durham’s office that it was “just one data point.”
As the FBI made requests to renew its spy warrants throughout 2017, Auten continued to gloss over major holes in the dossier. He even pressured agents and analysts to back off looking into a questionable source of key allegations, according to the Durham report. It turns out that source, Charles Dolan, was also tied to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.
Agent Helson told Durham that Auten told him to “hold off” on interviewing Dolan, who was never interviewed.
Auten also told a female FBI analyst working for Mueller “to cease all research and analysis related to Dolan,” according to the Durham report. She wrote a memo in September 2017 documenting Dolan’s ties to the dossier, but said that “Auten had made edits to her memorandum, some of which removed information regarding Dolan.” She said she was frustrated by the censorship and wondered if there was “a political motive” behind it. The analyst told Durham she prepared a contemporaneous timeline in case she was ever questioned about her role in the Mueller investigation.
Perhaps most concerning was Auten’s reluctance to corroborate even the existence of a ghost-like source Danchenko claimed had provided him a stream of bombshell allegations that were essential to the FBI’s case for probable cause against Page. The alleged source, Belarus-born businessman and Trump booster named Sergei Millian, actually had no connection of any kind to Danchenko. There is no evidence the two men ever met or spoke. Yet Danchenko attributed to Millian the dossier’s core allegation: that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation.” This claim, which Durham found to be completely conjured up by Danchenko, formed the backbone of all four of the FBI’s applications to the FISA court to spy on Trump.
Auten knew there were serious problems with the attribution. While debriefing Danchenko in January 2017, Danchenko was dodgy about his supposed conversations with Millian. Still, Auten made no effort to validate Millian as a source. He never examined either Danchenko’s or Millian’s phone records, for starters.
Durham did pull the call records, however, and easily determined that Danchenko never actually spoke with Millian. He also learned from Danchenko’s email records that he fabricated his conversations with Millian, which means he also made up the dossier allegation that Carter Page masterminded the Democratic National Committee email leak, a claim the FBI also vouchsafed to the FISA court to attain the Page wiretaps.
“Nevertheless, the information allegedly provided by Millian remained in the Page FISA applications,” Durham stated in his report.
Auten told Durham that he did, however, check with the FBI’s partners at the CIA to see if they had anything on file to corroborate Danchenko’s â€¯reporting in the dossier.
“They received no corroborating information back,” Durham said.
Durham interviewed a career counterintelligence analyst at Langley who said the dossier was transparent fiction. “Indeed, after the dossier was leaked and became public,” Durham relayed in his report, “that [CIA] expert’s reaction was to ask the FBI, ‘You didn’t use that, right?’”
For several years, Auten moonlighted teaching law enforcement, intelligence, and surveillance courses at Patrick Henry College in North Virginia. He was removed from the Patrick Henry website soon after RealClearInvestigations published a July 2020 story first identifying him as the anonymous “Supervisory Intelligence Analyst” singled out in 2019 by DOJ Inspector General Horowitz for cutting corners verifying the dossier.
Auten also is no longer listed as a member of the college’s Strategic Intelligence Board of Advisors. Patrick Henry’s communications director did not reply to requests for an explanation for Auten’s removal from the website. But a faculty spokesman confirmed over the phone that he is no longer teaching there.
He is, however, apparently, still employed by the FBI. Auten’s most recent activities that have come to light? Possibly using false information to undermine allegations of criminal activity on the part of Hunter Biden. According to a July 25, 2022, letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Auten’s “scheme” entailed using deceptive and derogatory information to derail the FBI’s investigation.
“First, it’s been alleged that the FBI developed information in 2020 about Hunter Biden’s criminal financial and related activity,” Grassley wrote. “It is further alleged that in August 2020, FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten opened an assessment which was used by an FBI Headquarters (“FBI HQ”) team to improperly discredit negative Hunter Biden information as disinformation and caused investigative activity to cease.”
Correction, Thursday, June 1, 2023, 10:28 AM Eastern
Because of an editing error, an earlier version mischaracterized Brian Auten’s recollection of an interaction with the CIA. He told Special Counsel John Durham that he did check with the agency in an effort to corroborate Igor Danchenko’sâ€¯reporting in the Steele dossier. It is not the case that he said he never checked.
This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.