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How a trusted FBI source became the center of a Washington scandal


By Evan Perez and Hannah Rabinowitz, CNN

(CNN) — Alexander Smirnov was initially prized by the FBI as a solid source who had relationships with corrupt foreign business and government officials, but his appeal grew when he revealed he also had connections with foreign intelligence services, according to multiple sources.

The FBI’s management of Smirnov is drawing fresh scrutiny after it was determined one of the bureau’s longtime paid sources was pushing fake dirt about President Joe Biden and his family.

Prosecutors say Smirnov was the source of the false allegations that the Bidens received $10 million in bribes in exchange for favors to benefit a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, while the president’s son, Hunter, was a paid board member. Smirnov now claims to have gotten some of his dirt about the Bidens from Russian intelligence officials, according to court documents.

The former paid informant is facing criminal charges of lying to the FBI and falsifying documents. He has not yet entered a plea.

But the FBI was suspicious of some of Smirnov’s information as far back as 2020, and during his years working as a paid informant, there’s no indication he was polygraphed, according to a person briefed on the matter.

A polygraph is a standard way the bureau assesses sources. In some cases, the bureau is known to avoid using polygraphs if a confidential source is also working with another US intelligence agency, current and former officials say.

The Smirnov saga harkens back to another notorious longtime informant, Christopher Steele, whose relationship with the FBI went awry over explosive unverified allegations about candidate Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

Both informants had a venerated reputation within the FBI, and both brought uncorroborated raw allegations against a major presidential candidate, and his supposedly corrupt foreign ties. But the two aren’t the same; Smirnov is now accused of criminally lying to the bureau, while Steele was investigated for doing the same thing but never faced charges.

FBI officials continue to believe it’s possible for both things to be true: that Smirnov provided legitimate and prized information in criminal investigations over the years and that he lied about the Burisma bribes in part because of his antipathy against the Bidens.

Smirnov first began working for the FBI as an informant in 2010, according to court records. He provided information to the same handler for more than a decade, and court documents say their relationship was deep enough that the two eventually spoke nearly daily.

From early on in their relationship, Smirnov’s handler knew he had associations with foreign government officials. When he later reported interactions with foreign intelligence agencies, the FBI realized that the possible window Smirnov offered into those intelligence activities was also valuable, people briefed on the matter said.

The FBI also knew that Smirnov worked as a source to Israeli and other US intelligence services, the people briefed on the matter said.

Timeline of information from Smirnov

As prosecutors have gone public with Smirnov’s alleged lies, the timeline of what he said and what investigators, prosecutors and politicians believed, has come under renewed scrutiny from lawmakers who say the FBI has more to explain.

Before last week, it wasn’t even known that Smirnov was behind the false Biden bribery claims. And even as prosecutors relay his alleged claims of ties to Russian intelligence, they haven’t provided evidence to corroborate that he is now telling the truth.

Last summer, FBI briefers had privately told members of Congress that Smirnov had previously provided credible information in several investigations, the lawmakers have said.

But the bureau was in a bind: The briefers warned lawmakers that the document, known as a 1023, containing Smirnov’s allegations against the Bidens also included raw, uncorroborated intelligence that should not be made public. But at least one lawmaker already had the document, and House Republicans were threatening the FBI over its resistance to turn it over.

Several key questions now remain, chief among them: If the FBI and at least two Trump-appointed US attorneys – Scott Brady in Pittsburgh and David Weiss in Delaware – knew of the FBI’s inability to corroborate Smirnov’s claims, why did it take until last summer for them to begin unraveling his alleged lies?

As early as 2020, Smirnov’s claims about the Bidens were viewed as suspicious by FBI investigators, in part because they couldn’t corroborate them and because some suspected he wasn’t being truthful about all of them, a person briefed on the matter said. Smirnov’s new information also came at a time when the FBI and the US intelligence community was aware of Russian efforts to sow disinformation about the Bidens, some of which had become public through Rudy Giuliani.

In the meantime, congressional Republicans spent months using Smirnov’s allegations to fuel their probes into Hunter Biden and to eventually launch an impeachment inquiry into his father.

Risks of using informants

A former FBI official who managed confidential sources told CNN that Smirnov’s case highlights the risks of using informants.

“They are a necessary evil,” the former FBI official said. “People have ulterior motives to provide information. And … your job is to balance all of that.”

With an informant of Smirnov’s caliber – one providing information on the US president or high-level officials – FBI officials know the risks are even higher.

“Everyone holds their breath,” the former official said of managing a particularly sensitive confidential source. “There’s a roomful of nooses, and you think, ‘I’m gonna run into one of them.’”

A 2019 audit of the FBI’s management of informants from the Justice Department Inspector General found several deficiencies in how the FBI uses informants, including in the process for vetting sources, how the bureau decides to continue to use informants and how long-term informants were monitored.

Those deficiencies include “a risk that CHSs are not adequately scrutinized or prioritized,” the audit found, using an acronym for confidential human sources, or informants.

Smirnov first made payment accusations in 2020

In March 2017 – after the Obama-Biden administration had ended – Smirnov first reported contacts with Burisma executives, prosecutors say. The informant told his handler that there was a “brief, non-relevant” mention of Hunter Biden during a conversation he had with the owner of Burisma but that the conversation was focused other things.

Smirnov’s reports were memorialized in an FBI form called a 1023, which agents use to record unverified reporting from informants.

Years later, in May 2020, Smirnov allegedly texted his FBI handler that Joe Biden was “going to jail.” Smirnov allegedly told his handler that he would “get those recordings” of Hunter Biden telling Burisma that his father would “take care” of the prosecutor general – an allegation that was pushed at the time by top Trump allies and Russian operations.

For months, prosecutors say, Smirnov did not provide any information to back up his allegations.

In June 2020, the Pittsburgh-based US attorney at the time, Scott Brady, was tasked by Justice Department officials with helping to review information from the public “that may be relevant to matters relating to Ukraine.” As part of their review, FBI Pittsburgh opened an assessment into the document that memorialized Smirnov’s 2017 discussion with Burisma executives.

It is at this point, prosecutors allege, that Smirnov first made the explosive allegations about the Bidens. Smirnov told the FBI that Burisma executives admitted to him in 2015 and 2016 that they hired Hunter Biden to “protect us, through his dad, from all kinds of problems,” and that they had paid $5 million to each Biden.

The FBI asked Smirnov to hand over documents to determine whether the information he provided was accurate. Prosecutors say that two months later, the FBI members and DOJ leadership concurred that their assessment of Smirnov’s claims be closed.

But, according to his own private testimony last year to the House Judiciary Committee, Scott Brady claimed he was “able to corroborate certain information that was represented by the CHS and is memorialized in this 1023,” including through some travel records that Smirnov had provided.

Prosecutors now say that Smirnov’s travel records are going to be used as evidence against him in his criminal case, proving that he lied about his meetings with Burisma executives.

Brady said he believed that there was a “sufficient indicia of credibility” into aspects of the 1023, and briefed Weiss on the document, according to the interview transcript. Brady said he asked the FBI to give the document to Weiss’ office.

Weiss apparently kept that investigation open through July 2023, when the FBI approached his team about “allegations related to” Smirnov’s claims. By then, Smirnov’s allegations, though not publicly attributed to him, were thrust into the political spotlight by Republicans who relentlessly promoted his Biden bribery story.

Smirnov reported more than a dozen meetings or discussions with Russian officials in 2023, according to court documents.

In September, six years after his original report, Smirnov was again interviewed by the FBI regarding his claims about the Bidens. Prosecutors said that he “repeated some false claims, changed his story as to other of his claims, and promoted a new false narrative after he said he met with Russian officials.”

Smirnov was arrested last week. He has not yet entered a formal plea, but his lawyers have stated he’s fighting the charges.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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