The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Horowitz report confirms John Solomon’s scoop on FBI ‘spreadsheet’ regarding Steele dossier

John Solomon, then-executive editor of the Washington Times, in 2008. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Second in a series on how the U.S. media handled Christopher Steele’s Russia dossier. Read the rest of the series here.

Recent weeks have frowned on John Solomon, the former opinion contributor for the Hill whose articles on Ukraine earlier this year advanced Rudolph W. Giuliani’s attempts to stir a Democratic scandal. In congressional testimony, George Kent, a senior State Department official, said this in reference to a Solomon article from March: “It was, if not entirely made up in full cloth, it was primarily non-truths and non-sequiturs.”

No such evaluation can attach to a less prominent Solomon article from July regarding the dossier compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele. “FBI’s spreadsheet puts a stake through the heart of Steele’s dossier,” reads the piece’s headline.

“Over months of work, FBI agents painstakingly researched every claim Steele made about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, and assembled their findings into a spreadsheet-like document,” reported Solomon, who went on to say that the evaluation wasn’t favorable. “Multiple sources familiar with the FBI spreadsheet tell me the vast majority of Steele’s claims were deemed to be wrong, or could not be corroborated even with the most awesome tools available to the U.S. intelligence community,” Solomon wrote, adding that the “over-under isn’t flattering to Steele.”

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

Compare that reporting with a passage from the Horowitz report. “To evaluate Steele’s election reporting, intelligence analysts on the Crossfire Hurricane team created a spreadsheet identifying each statement that appeared in the Steele election reports in order to have a record of what the FBI learned during its assessment regarding those statements. The intelligence analysts also attempted to determine the true identities of the sub-source(s) responsible for each statement in Steele’s election reporting, and made assessments of each sub-source’s likely access to the type of information described.”

As for the accuracy of the reporting, Horowitz is scarcely encouraging: “The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available,” says the report.

Official reports haven’t been kind to Steele’s work product. The Mueller report, released in April, left dangling a number of contentions in the dossier — with Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler concluding that it left “some key elements … in grave doubt.” Among those key elements was the dossier’s allegation that Trump attorney Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague in 2016 to meet with Russians.

In his July article, Solomon cited a “source” as estimating that “the spreadsheet found upward of 90 percent of the dossier’s claims to be either wrong, nonverifiable or open-source intelligence found with a Google search.”

Research firm Fusion GPS says otherwise. Now a common name in U.S. political chatter, Fusion GPS is the outfit that commissioned Steele to write his memos, which were financed with payments from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. “About the only thing from John Solomon that the Horowitz report confirms is that the FBI used a spreadsheet to evaluate the Steele memorandums, an unremarkable fact,” notes the firm in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog. “Solomon’s claim that the spreadsheet showed ‘the vast majority of Steele’s claims were deemed to be wrong, or could not be corroborated,’ is not confirmed by the IG report, which states that ‘as of September 2017, the FBI had corroborated limited information in the Steele election reporting.’"

More: Fusion GPS points out that the Horowitz report contains a caveat noting that “the spreadsheet omitted certain highly classified information and therefore its scope was partial.” So the idea that the spreadsheet “put a stake through the heart of Steele’s dossier,” argues the firm, is just “one more wildly exaggerated claim made by John Solomon.” Solomon parted ways with the Hill in the fall; his challenged stories are under review by the Hill, and for good reason.

“Solomon and other Trump propagandists regularly conflate ‘uncorroborated’ with ‘disproven,'" continues the Fusion GPS response. “Meanwhile, they are mute on what in the Steele memoranda has been corroborated. What’s remarkable about the Steele reporting after three years is how much of it stands up and how little of it has been disproven."

In their book “A Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump,” Fusion GPS co-founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch vouch for Steele’s integrity, his sources and their collective mission. We have asked the firm to sketch out which parts of the dossier have been corroborated, for inclusion in subsequent part of this series.

For now, though, we’ll just note that time is the enemy of the “not disproven” defense. The longer the dossier’s claims linger in the public realm without corroboration, the flimsier they appear — even though Simpson and Fritsch maintain they were never supposed to meet the standards of a court filing or the front page of a newspaper to begin with. Claims such as these threaten to become what this blog called in January “permanent exclusives.” And no one wants to be associated with permanent exclusives.

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple:

Part 1 of this series: 'The story stands’: McClatchy won’t back off its Michael Cohen-Prague reporting

Part 3: ‘Disinformation’ claim ‘galls’ dossier author Christopher Steele

Part 4: CNN lands an interview with its own contributor

Part 5: Rachel Maddow rooted for the Steele dossier to be true. Then it fell apart.

Part 6: A much-cited defense of the Steele dossier has a problem

Part 7: ‘Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape’ — New York Times reporter talks Steele dossier, Horowitz report and more

Part 8: Dear CNN: What parts of the Steele dossier were corroborated?

Part 9: Come clean, CNN

Part 10: ‘So this is all about collusion’: An inventory of media remarks on the Steele dossier