Seventh in a series on the media’s handling of the dossier. Read the rest of the series here.

The headline on the front page of the New York Times on Nov. 23 read, “Report Is Said To Clear F.B.I. Of Bias Claims,” by Adam Goldman and Charlie Savage.

The “report” is the result of a nearly two-year investigation, overseen by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, probing the origins of the U.S. government’s Russia investigation and its various activities. When the actual Horowitz report came out on Dec. 9, it validated the New York Times headline: The decision to open the investigation was “in compliance with Department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” played a role in the decision. It also validated other parts of the Times’s preview as it bore in on the FBI’s efforts to seek warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — a process that, as the Horowitz report indicates, was shot through with omissions and incompetence.

Thus began a debate about which Horowitz finding deserved prominence: The lack of evidence regarding political bias or the abuse of the FISA process?

Goldman tells the Erik Wemple Blog there’s a reason the preview prioritized the report’s eventual finding on political bias: “Well, the president of the United States has been accusing the FBI of a coup. … This is a big, weighty accusation. Why wouldn’t we have tackled that one: Was the president right, did the president know something we didn’t? And if the president was right, that’s pretty extraordinary,” he says.

Boiled into the FISA disclosures in the Horowitz report is a verdict on the dossier of memorandums compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele — information that was used in the FISA process. In January 2017, CNN reported that briefings at the highest levels of government had referenced the dossier. Then BuzzFeed published it. As it turned out, the FBI was trying to confirm its sprawling collection of allegations — that there was a conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, that Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague during the campaign for collusive purposes, that then-Trump adviser Carter Page was knee-deep in all the scheming.

What did the bureau find? From the Horowitz report:

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.

Steele himself believes that 70 percent of the claims in the dossier are accurate, according to Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch’s “Crime in Progress,” a book by the co-founders of Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier. “What’s remarkable about the Steele reporting after three years is how much of it stands up and how little of it has been disproved,” wrote the firm in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog.

But as Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff wrote last year, when “you actually get into the details of the Steele dossier, the specific allegations, we have not seen the evidence to support them, and, in fact, there’s good grounds to think that some of the more sensational allegations will never be proven and are likely false.”

After the April 2019 release of the Mueller report, Goldman and two of his colleagues wrote a story citing concerns in law enforcement circles about the dossier’s credibility in early 2017. It took a long time to nail down that story, Goldman tells the Erik Wemple Blog in an interview about his work on the dossier. One strand from the dossier that Goldman attempted to track down was the allegation that the Russians had tapes of a perverted ritual in a Moscow hotel. “Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape,” says Goldman.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Have a look:

What was your first reaction to the dossier? Were you wary of it?

I hadn’t read the dossier until BuzzFeed published it. I was at The Washington Post, and I left in late August [for the New York Times], and I started hearing rumors, but nobody actually told me anything. I’m at the Times; I’m doing terrorism; I’m dealing with the Clinton Foundation; and I don’t actually read the dossier until it’s online.

Were you part of Steele’s media tour?

No, I was not.

You heard rumors, and then BuzzFeed posted it, and then did your focus turn to it?

No, my focus didn’t turn toward it because I was subsumed with the FBI Russia investigation itself, all the different components to it, right? Figuring out if he was under investigation, right? What was it based on, what were the origins of Crossfire Hurricane? I was trying to figure out the past and trying to keep up with what the FBI was doing. So the dossier for me was not a central — there was a lot of reporting to be done, and I wasn’t the one focused on the dossier.

But then it did obviously, eventually come closer into your world.

Of course I remember reading the memo — the [Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) memo claiming surveillance overreach at the FBI], the dueling memos from the Dems and the Republicans. … Who was right and who was wrong? The dossier had been used, we knew, from Nunes’s memo. We didn’t know how much of it was used, and we didn’t have a good understanding of what the FBI had done to vet it. The assumption was they certainly were trying to. And, well, what did they know that we didn’t know? And then how many months ago, the deputy attorney general says they need to look into this. There were all these accusations floating around. So the deputy attorney general has the IG start looking into it. But really for me, as the guy covering the FBI, I was very interested in what the IG was doing. There was a lot going on, as the IG developed his case and more people started to talk to more people, I was able to get a better sense eventually there were going to be problems not only with the dossier but obviously big problems with the FISA.

[…]

I might have figured [that the FBI had interviewed the dossier’s primary sub-source in January 2017] in early 2019 or late 2018. And that for me was an extraordinary moment: Right? I knew, s---, there were problems. So now there’s some indication that there were problems with the dossier and the FBI had a sense of it. But there were only a handful of people in that room with the source [in January 2017]. And I couldn’t — to be able to write a definitive story with the details the IG had was, I guess, a bridge too far, right? It was a mountain too high for me. Because as the IG report shows, the information didn’t even get to the FISA court. So it somehow rested with this very small group of people in the FBI. I did identify one former law enforcement official who I thought would know about it and I’m sure probably did, and this person did not answer any of my requests. So I went to great lengths to try to build out that information and also figure out who the primary [source] was, and it proved to be extraordinarily tough. I mean, you can imagine: That was an explosive part of the IG report. I would have liked to have known and reported what he said in January of 2017. If I had learned more, I would have liked to have written a much larger, more important story informing the public [about] the problems that the FBI uncovered.

[…]

People on the right on Twitter criticized us for our pre-IG leak stories. I thought they were all very sound. The New York Times was the first newspaper to identify Kevin Clinesmith by name. [Clinesmith is the FBI lawyer who, according to the Times account, “altered an email that officials used to prepare to seek court approval to renew the wiretap.”] My colleagues and I had the first comprehensive story about the main takeaways: No evidence of bias, no — [Joseph] Mifsud wasn’t working for the FBI, Crossfire Hurricane was legit; and these were all important takeaways. The immediate two stories we wrote — I wrote there are many errors, omissions and mistakes [in the FISA applications]. And I wrote there’s exculpatory evidence they should have included about [George] Papadopoulos and the FISA and about Carter [Page]. I didn’t have the nitty-gritty detail of a 500-page report to be able to walk through all 17 of those significant errors. And frankly it wasn’t even clear to me what Clinesmith had done and how he had altered that email. I had a sense of that. … The way it was described to me it was he took something from the positive and made it into a negative. And that’s what he did. … It was an important report, and I think we did a pretty good job previewing what a lot of it was going to say on a macro level.

Everything you did predict actually was in the report. The criticism, such as it is, is a matter of weighting.

Well, the president of the United States has been accusing the FBI of a coup. He said it in that news conference afterward, they tried to overthrow the government. This is a big, weighty accusation. Why wouldn’t we have tackled that one: Was the president right, did the president know something we didn’t? And if the president was right, that’s pretty extraordinary.

[…]

Also: I was very careful with this language reporting they hadn't placed reporters or undercovers inside the campaign. That was also a major takeaway.

Given that you’ve covered the FBI forever and law enforcement forever and surveillance and all this stuff, tell me what you think about the semantics and the technicalities of this debate about spying.

I mean, look, Matt Apuzzo and I wrote the NYPD stories [about the NYPD’s illegal surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, for the Associated Press]. We used the word “spying” because it seemed that the NYPD didn’t have a legal justification to do what they were doing: going into coffee shops, eavesdropping on private citizens in public spaces, gathering intelligence about communities and putting them in secret documents. People had done nothing wrong and were not accused of doing anything wrong. In this particular case, you have what the IG says are informants who didn’t violate any rules or policies being used as a legitimate law enforcement investigation. Attorney General William P. Barr thinks it’s spying. I don’t think I would hesitate to use the word “spying” if they had found something illegal. If lawful surveillance is spying, then is every FBI investigation they do spying? Did they spy when they busted those NFL players for health-care fraud? God knows what they did in that investigation.

Is the investigation into Rudy and Lev and Igor — is that spying? Where is the line between lawful surveillance and spying?

It’s like torture, right? … The implication of “torture” is that somebody did something wrong. They violated someone’s human rights.

You reported in April about the alleged flimsiness of the dossier.

I had just been collecting a lot of information wanting to do a story about all of this. I'd just been filling up this bucket until I had enough information to write a story. And I kept refilling the bucket.

It was cited on “Hannity.” How do you feel oftentimes to see Sean Hannity and Trump rip the New York Times and then rely on it the next day?

I don’t pay much attention to it. But I’d love to go on “Hannity.”

David Kris was on the Lawfare podcast and said he needed to emphasize a million times that the FISA problems were not political and he couldn’t emphasize that enough. And I know that there are representations in the Horowitz report saying that he couldn’t find political bias —

That’s fine, but he also said he didn’t get reasonable satisfactory answers. I mean, there were so many screw-ups. How is that possible — basic stuff that people were incapable of doing? My position is that we’re going to go with the Horowitz report until we learn otherwise from U.S. Attorney John Durham or whoever — somebody reputable.

Early on, as you said, this stuff wasn’t necessarily part of your bailiwick, and you eventually moved toward it as the IG got involved. What do you get from the New York Times — your editors — about this question that BuzzFeed struggled with when they published the dossier: We know that they circulated it at the highest level of government. We haven’t verified or knocked down all the contentions in it, but we feel that since it’s such an important document for the government that we can publish it and the public has a right to see it.

That’s an answer for the bosses. My standard on my stories, it has to be 100 percent right. … I mean, I don’t publish other people’s work and guess, roll the dice.

Mother Jones’s David Corn — among others — has reported that the author of what turned out to be the dossier was a reputable source of intelligence, highly regarded. What’s your sense of talking about reputations of intelligence sources. Is that a precise science, or is that a very difficult thing to do?

When you talk to formers in the intel community or other former agents, there’s a lot of disparagement of other people. If you’re not in their clique, you’re an idiot. That’s a bad case officer. Oh, you know, that one source he made, that source was a double agent. Haha. I think you have to be doing it a long time and deal with a lot of people to figure out who’s sort of like extraordinarily credible within that community, seasoned, smart and who’s got a track record.

Some dude walks up to you you’ve never met before and tells you a bunch of [crap]. You publish it? No, that’s not the way it works. The way it works is you deal with people over a long period of time, and you develop a track record. And the track record, it involves the information they’ve provided you. And over time, you have a good sense of whether that information is good or not. I’ve got people who, I’d put them right up there with — if they screw something up, it’s usually because they don’t have the document in front of them but they have a track record of providing solid information — of course you have to corroborate with other people. And then there are people who I’ve determined are not necessarily fabricators but are just not worth my time. So I don’t take information from them anymore and put it in the paper. I just don’t deal with them. I think you have to be skeptical when people approach you.

Did you guys ever chase the pee tape?

Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape.

What happened there?

I don’t want to get into it, but it just didn’t … [Editor’s note: At this point, Goldman’s voice trailed off.]

What do you make of the bigger lesson here about how government operates and especially FISA being such a secretive —

It’s just a reminder of the extraordinary powers the government has at their fingertips and the social contract we have with them and implicit in that is the trust that they won’t abuse it. And in this small part of this investigation … FISA was a very small piece of a large massive investigation that for the most part they did by the book. They got this one terribly wrong, but this was the most powerful tool they used as part of the investigation, and they got it wrong. The most intrusive tool at their disposal, and they screwed it up. For skeptics, that reinforces this idea that when the government says it’s all good, our inclination is to say probably not.

Is it the case that only a properly authorized and resourced IG investigation can get to the bottom of something like this?

I look at this, and best-case scenario is somebody within the organization provides you emails or documents. What’s best case? You got a Snowden who dumps it all out? I don’t even know how they would go about pulling everything off of everywhere. This is like the most highly classified stuff. This is the most sensitive information the FBI handles, are these FISA applications, and to be actually able to see one was an extraordinary moment, and this is the first time the inspector general at the Department of Justice has ever scrutinized an individual FISA. And he had access to the FBI’s informant files, called Delta, and he had access to everybody’s emails, text messages, these little instant messages. … It would be hard to replicate what he did.

Typically what you find in these investigations — unless there’s a Snowden — you hit broad themes. So the broader theme would have been: I figured out the full extent of this Jan. 17, 2017, meeting. It was awful. The dossier was garbage, and then I learned the court hadn’t been told. I mean, that would have been a big moment. But you know, you’d have to rest on — you’d have to feel comfortable doing that. Even penetrating the FISA court is extraordinarily difficult — knowing what they know and what they don’t know. Because it’s not just the FISA application; they send letters, there’s communications — it’s all classified. This is the toughest area to report on in government.

What would you say about the Cohen situation? Clearly that’s a story that everyone sent somebody to Prague. … You have someone denying it, you have an unverifiable dossier, and you have these reports coming out of McClatchy and a tough negative to prove. How do you approach something like that?

Like I did, by not publishing. That was so contentiously debated and knocked down, somebody would have to provide me extraordinary evidence that, in fact, he was there and some government acknowledgment of it.

Any other things about this report that shocked you?

The lack of curiosity by agents. Like, you really had a meeting with Steele and you didn’t ask him if he was the source of the Yahoo News article? [On Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff cited a “well-placed Western intelligence source” in a scoop on interest by intelligence officials in Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page’s ties to Russia] That’s the first thing I’d want to know. Who are you dealing with, right? Really, nobody made sure that the highest levels of DOJ and FBI were aware of this blockbuster interview with Steele’s primary source? Some of it just struck me as unbelievably sloppy. And remember, [then-FBI director James] Comey goes up and tells the president [in January 2017] that the dossier is salacious and unverifiable, and then they’re on the cusp of renewing it and they meet with the guy who tells them it’s garbage, and nobody thinks to say, “Somebody should know this, right?”

And the director of the FBI just briefed the president on this, and it got leaked to CNN, and it was all over the news. You’d think that somebody would have said, “The boss needs to know about this in a big way.”

[…]

I don’t know if it’s in this case, but there is an attitude, I know, among some that I talk to that, “We do everything in secret.” So when you’re not getting scrutinized every day by the public and your supervisors aren’t checking your work, you can imagine how your standards might get lax.

Hannity has always talked about the FBI being corrupt at the top and heroes down at the rank-and-file level. What do you think this report tells you about that?

Last I checked, nobody’s been charged with corruption. We’ve had two very long reports done on the Clinton email investigation and the Russia investigation, and they’re very different reports in some ways. For the most part, in this politically fraught Hillary Clinton email investigation, the investigation was done largely without fault. Now granted, they weren’t doing FISAs. The IG, if he had any disagreements, they were small quibbles. That report is about leadership, right? Comey fumbling the ball before the 1-yard line and undoing the work that all these agents had done to get this email investigation finished before the election. And then with Russia, once again, you’ve got a large investigation that’s done mainly by the book, but one small piece of it — FISA — is horrendous. That was a failure of low-ranking agents. Does Hannity think they’re heroes? Maybe someone should ask him.

What did the IG say? There’s no vindication for anybody who touched this FISA. I think he called it grotesque incompetence at best. So what’s that say? And clearly there are leadership failures, too, in this Russia investigation.

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple: