Federal judge rules against FBI, orders bureau to search for Steele communication documents

Screengrab FBI Director Christopher Wray

A federal judge ruled against the FBI in a battle with the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, ordering the bureau on Friday to further search for records related to ex-British spy Christopher Steele, author of the salacious Fusion GPS dossier.

“U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper ordered the FBI to conduct a search within 60 days for records of communications with former British spy and dossier author Christopher Steele post-dating Steele’s service as an FBI confidential source,” Judicial Watch reported.

The watchdog group filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department in 2017 and has been fighting to get the records released.

The records in question post-date Steele’s time as an FBI informant and Cooper said the communications could reveal why the bureau developed Steele as a confidential human source and why they eventually terminated their relationship with him.

“Those records might either bolster or weaken Steele’s credibility as a source,” Cooper ruled. “That information, in turn, could provide a basis on which to evaluate the FBI’s performance of its law-enforcement duties, including its judgment in selecting and relying on confidential sources, especially in connection with such a politically sensitive subject.”

The unverified dossier, which was funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign, helped to establish surveillance on the Trump campaign through former campaign adviser Carter Page.

After Steele was terminated as an FBI informant in November 2016, he maintained communications through former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr — his wife, Nellie Ohr, worked for Fusion GPS and he passed information obtained from her to the bureau.

Now under Director Christopher Wray, the FBI has refused to search for records that post-date Steele’s dismissal, contending that any records discovered would be exempt from disclosure on privacy grounds, according to Judicial Watch.

But Judge Cooper ruled Friday that the public’s interest in disclosure outweigh any privacy concerns Steele may have about the documents.

“Steele’s privacy interests are far different from those courts usually consider under Exemption 7(C), where disclosure would make public for the first time an individual’s affiliation with law enforcement, whether as agent, cooperator, or target… The balance therefore tilts in favor of disclosure,” Cooper wrote in his decision.

“Accordingly, the Court will order the FBI to conduct a search for records post-dating Steele’s service as a confidential source.”

The Judicial Watch lawsuit seeks:

  • All records of communications between any official, employee, or representative of the FBI and Mr. Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer and the owner of the private firm Orbis Business Intelligence.
  • All records related to the proposed, planned, or actual payment of any funds to Mr. Steele and/or Orbis Business Intelligence.
  • All records produced in preparation for, during, or pursuant to any meetings or telephonic conversations between any official, employee, or representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Mr. Christopher Steele and/or any employee or representative of Orbis Business Intelligence.


The lawsuit has already produced documents that show the FBI paid Steele at least 11 times during the 2016 presidential campaign and then terminated him for leaking to the press — that Ohr remained in regular contact with Steele after he was fired was also uncovered.


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