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Crossfire Hurricane FBI Analyst Battered by Both Sides in Danchenko Trial

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Russian business analyst Igor Danchenko may be the defendant, but the government’s first witness called to testify against him often appeared to be the one on trial during the first two days of often confounding and dense deliberations delving into the dusky origins of the debunked Steele Dossier.

FBI supervisory counterintelligence analyst Brian Auten was on the stand for more than nine hours on Oct. 12 and 13 before U.S. Eastern District of Virginia Judge Anthony Trenga.

Auten, who supervised analysts in the 2016 Crossfire Hurricane investigation, was grilled by both the defense and the prosecution after being presented with emails and other documents he did not know of, or failed to pursue, while probing Danchenko’s alleged role as the primary “sub-source” in funneling salacious concoctions about former President Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential campaign to former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who went on to compile 17 discredited “reports” included in the dossier.

The Steele Dossier was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and orchestrated by FusionGPS, a Washington, D.C.-based “strategic intelligence” firm implicated in a range of alleged skullduggery on behalf of Clinton and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign.

Danchenko, a Russian national and Virginia resident, is charged with five counts of making false statements to Auten and FBI special agent Stephen Somma during three January 2017 interviews. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which could carry a 25-year prison sentence if convicted.

According to Auten, Danchenko lied to him and Somma in concealing his contacts with Charles Dolan, Jr., a longtime Democrat “operative,” Clinton family associate, and billionaire founder of Cablevision and HBO who is now senior vice president of kglobal, which describes itself as “a full service communications and creative agency based in Washington, D.C., with clients around the globe.”

Danchenko is also accused of lying about an alleged July 2016 meeting with Sergei Millian, a Belarusian-American businessman and former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, arranged during a phone call from a Russian-speaking man who never identified himself. 

As a result of the phone call, which the FBI maintains there is no record of and never happened, Danchenko told Auten and Somma that he went to New York City for the arranged meeting with the anonymous caller, who he assumed was Millian, but never claimed to be certain who it was. 

The meeting was a bust because no one but Danchenko showed up, he told Auten and Somma during interviews Jan. 24-26, 2017

Danchenko’s attorneys—Danny Oronato and Stuart Sears of Washington, D.C.-based Schertler, Oronato, Mead & Sears LLP—maintain he told the truth in interviews and ripped Auten for not asking follow-up questions to clarify his responses to what they describe as vague queries.

Special Counsel John Durham, appointed in 2020 by then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr to investigate the FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence probe into Trump, his campaign, and Russia, also hammered Auten, especially just before he left the stand at the 6 p.m. close of proceedings on Oct. 13.

When Onorato and Durham weren’t jabbing at each other before Trenga and the jury—despite frequently conferring congenially while seated 3-feet apart—they were a tag-team and Auten was the foil, with both presenting undiscovered emails as new evidence in the case that the counterintelligence supervisor had not seen until last week while preparing to testify or while he was in the witness stand.

Durham asked Auten if he or Somma “knew what role Dolan played” in the affair when they met with Danchenko in January 2017.

Auten said Danchenko never mentioned Dolan during those three days of interviews but, by then, Dolan was “a person of interest with the Crossfire Hurricane team” so neither he nor Somma raised Dolan’s name.

Auten said in January 2017 he was not aware that Danchenko had met with Dolan in Moscow in June 2016 and October 2016, where they both attended a conference staged by YPO, “a global leadership community of chief executives” based in Irving, Texas. 

Former UK intelligence officer Christopher Steele in London, UK, on July 24, 2020, refused an offer of $1 million from the FBI to name the sources who proved the debunked allegations in the infamous 2016 ‘Steele Dossier.’ (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

Only last week, he admitted, did he learn of a series of August 2016 email exchanges between Danchenko to Dolan, including one on Aug. 16 where Danchenko refers to Dolan as “Chuck” and states, “I am working on a related project against Trump” and asks for assistance.

On Aug. 19, 2016, Dolan responded, “Let me dig around” and followed through the next day with an email that recounted sharing “a drink with a GOP player” who told him that then-former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski “played a lot of people and wanted (then-Trump campaign manager Paul) Manafort gone. I will let you know if I learn anything else.”

In his same-day response, Danchenko thanked him and stated his project against Trump“ is “an important project for me and our goals clearly coincide.”

Auten said he “should have been provided them (emails)” by Danchenko. “If there was anything in the dossier that Mr. Dolan provided, it would have been important for us to know that” in January 2017, he said.

Oronato dismissed the significance of the exchange, claiming the Lewandowski-Manafort feud was a news story at the time and it appeared as if the FBI “is taking open-source material and laundering it to make it look like it’s from another source.”

He cited an Aug. 14 Politico article that discussed how Lewandowski “hates Manafort,” which Dolan linked to on Aug. 20, the same day he told Danchenko he had gleaned the tidbit while sharing “a drink with a GOP player.” 

“When people tweet, it is available to the public,” it is “in the public domain,” Oronato said. “Anyone could have Googled on Aug. 20 and found that, and that is what Dolan told Danchenko that day. This is not a state secret what Dolan told Mr. Danchenko.”

After more than five hours of direct examination by Durham, who is taking the lead in the case unlike the two previous prosecutions stemming from the investigation, Oronato drilled into Auten for nearly three hours before Durham ended his time on the stand during more than an hour of redirect rebuttal.

During cross-examination, Oronato introduced several email exchanges dating to May 2016 between Danchenko and several contacts during in a dizzying blitz of names, dates, and internet communications apps such as FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Skype that Millian and others list in their contact information and that would not leave a phone record.

“The guy who (Danchenko) said he could have received a call from was using these apps,” Oronato said, telling Auten, “Everything (Danchenko) has told you has been corroborated, everything he told you was truthful.”

“Yes,” Auten said, “I’d say I’m seeing that.”

Auten repeatedly had to admit he had not seen the evidence newly introduced in the courtroom.

This information “would have been of value in assessing the allegations,” Auten said. “All the emails would be very helpful in understanding the full extent of communications between the parties.”

Despite being the first witness in what is likely his penultimate special counsel case, Durham had no sympathy for Auten as a long day in court drew to a close.

“While working on Crossfire Hurricane, you were questioned as a witness in the Mueller investigation—you were in the middle of it,” he said. “Did you guys even bother to pull phone records? Travel records? You did none of these things.” 

The evidence gathered in the investigation “had to be reconstructed” because basic investigatory procedures were not followed, Durham said.

“Any particular reason why experienced FBI personnel could not request phone records?” He asked, referring to Millian’s phone. “Ever run that number down to see phone records?

Auten said he could not recall if they “pulled those records or not.”

Durham mocked Auten for not being more dubious of Danchenko’s alleged attempts to collaborate with Millian in his “project against Trump.”

“Millian was a vocal Trump supporter. Would you find it peculiar that someone who was an avid Trump supporter would provide negative information about the Trump campaign?” he asked. “That is very peculiar, right? Almost unbelievable, wouldn’t you say?”

Auten conceded that it was, indeed, peculiar.

Durham said Auten and his analysts were “much too willing and able to accept this information” without proper vetting before launching the investigations that Durham was appointed to investigate.

“The conduct of you and others involved in Crossfire Hurricane was under close scrutiny” by the Office of Inspector Generals, referencing “errors of omission” and other “significant” short fallings.

“You are under investigation by the inspection division of the FBI. Isn’t it true you got recommended for suspension?” Durham asked Auten, referring to a “write-up” for not disclosing all he knew of surveillance applications the FBI filed with various courts, including Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, during the Crossfire Hurricane probe.

The suspension is under appeal, Auten responded.

Oronato said that when Auten testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Crossfire Hurricane on Oct. 29, 2020, he had nothing but praise for Danchenko, which was consistent with his previous statements.

All that changed after July 26, 2021, his first meeting with Durham’s team, he said. “That’s when your status changed from witness to subject. That was scary?” 

“Yes,” Auten said.

“Is that why you had two lawyers with you?” Oronato asked.

“I didn’t have any basis at the time not to believe” Danchenko, Auten replied.

He still has no basis not to believe Danchenko although, Oronato said.


John Haughey has been a working journalist since 1978 with an extensive background in local government, state legislatures, and growth and development. A graduate of the University of Wyoming, he is a Navy veteran who fought fires at sea during three deployments aboard USS Constellation. He’s been a reporter for daily newspapers in California, Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Florida; a staff writer for Manhattan-based business trade publications.

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