FBI supervisors describe learning he was in the crosshairs of the Durham probe

An FBI counterintelligence official testified Wednesday that he was rattled when he learned he may have been in the crosshairs of special counsel John Durham’s team as it investigated the bureau’s 2016 investigation into links between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

Brian Auten, the FBI official who supervised intelligence analysts in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation in 2016, said it was “frightening” to be told he was a “subject” rather than a mere “witness” in the case – which could mean potential exposure to criminal charges.

Auten testified in federal court in Alexandria, Va., for the second day of the trial of Igor Danchenko. A private investigator based in Washington, Danchenko was hired by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, to gather information that eventually ended up in the “Steele dossier” of allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia. Danchenko was accused of lying to the FBI during interviews in 2017 about the sources behind his research — which Durham claims influenced the FBI’s work in the Russia investigation.

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According to his testimony, Auten was a key figure in the investigation in 2016. He supervised FBI intelligence analysts on the case and met with Steele, along with other FBI officials, who offered the former spy up to $1 million for information that could corroborate his allegations of collusion between Trump and Russia in court. Steele could not, Auten testified.

Then the car met with Danchenko over three days in January 2017 to assess his research and then helped recruit Danchenko to be a paid confidential informant for the FBI, hoping to obtain his sources and information, he testified.

Under questioning from Danchenko’s defense attorney Danny Onorato, Auten said Durham was the first investigator to consider him a “subject” of an investigation. The FBI’s counterintelligence chief said he had previously volunteered accounts of the FBI’s 2016 Russia investigation to the Justice Department’s inspector general and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and had prepared and signed a 100-page statement on the matter for the FBI’s internal affairs division.

Durham was appointed by then-Attorney General William P. Barr during the Trump administration to dig into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 investigation. In response to questions from Danchenko’s defense team, Auten said he retained two attorneys and met with Durham’s office in preparation for his testimony.

On Durham’s first day of questioning Auten, the FBI official repeatedly confirmed he was involved in reviewing warrant applications seeking secret surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. The filings were based in part on an unverified claim from Steele’s dossier that Trump was in “an elaborate conspiracy of collusion” with Russia. In a 2019 report, the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized some of Auten’s actions in the Page case, although the inspector general found no political bias in the FBI’s decision-making.

On Wednesday, Auten testified that Danchenko never turned over emails to the FBI that could have shaped the agency’s work. Emails show Danchenko, apparently without any success or response, reaching out to Sergei Millian, the former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. Prosecutors say Danchenko portrayed Millian as the source of some of the case’s allegations, even though the two had never spoken.

“All of these emails would be very helpful in understanding the full extent of the communications between the parties,” Auten said, adding that they could have helped the FBI “evaluate the flow of the information.” Auten also said Danchenko should have turned over email communications with Charles Dolan Jr. to the FBI in 2017. Prosecutors say Danchenko “hid” Dolan, a longtime Democratic-aligned Washington public relations executive, as a source and never mentioned him to FBI agents asking where he got his information.

For Durham to win a conviction, the jury must find not only that Danchenko intentionally deceived the FBI in 2017, but that the lies had a significant effect on the agency’s investigation. Auten said the FBI’s investigative actions “possibly” would have been different if agents had seen emails of Danchenko’s outreach to Millian in 2017, to which Durham shot back, “possibly?” Auten responded that FBI officials could have taken different investigative steps.

Danchenko’s team has argued that he did not lie about Dolan to the FBI because he was asked by agents if he had “spoken” to Dolan about material in the Steele dossier. The two had not spoken, only communicated via e-mail, according to Danchenko’s defense. As for Millian, Danchenko’s team argued that he was giving the FBI his best understanding of the facts at the time: An anonymous person had reached out in a phone call or via a phone chat app with dirt about Trump and Russia, and Danchenko assumed that was Millian.

“He never said with 100 percent certainty … that the anonymous caller was Sergei Millian?” Onorato asked Auten about the FBI’s three days of interviews with Danchenko in January 2017. “That’s correct,” Auten said.

“We asked questions and he answered those questions,” Auten said.

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