WASHINGTON - Information shared by Australia helped spark the FBI's probe into Russia's attempts to disrupt the US presidential election and possible collusion by Donald Trump's campaign, The New York Times reported Saturday.
George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, told Australia's ex-foreign minister Alexander Downer that Russia had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, information that Australia later passed on to its close ally the United States, the Times said.
The conversation between Papadopoulos and Downer, then Australia's high commissioner to Britain, took place at an upscale London bar in May 2016, the Times said, after Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential challenger in the election which Trump won.
"Two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr Papadopoulos to their American counterparts," the Times said, citing four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians' role.
"It was firsthand information from one of America's closest intelligence allies" that alarmed the FBI and helped prompt them to begin investigating, the Times said.
The investigation was also spurred by intelligence from other allies, including the British and Dutch governments, the Times said.
The report added that it was unclear whether Downer was "fishing" for information during the Papadopoulos meeting, which came about because of a series of connections that began with an Israeli embassy official.
It is also not clear why the Australian government waited two months to pass the information to the FBI, the Times said.
Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May, citing Comey's probe into possible links between the presidential campaign and Russian interference, as well as Comey's alleged protection of Clinton.
Comey's firing led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is carrying on the investigation, a wide-ranging probe that includes whether Trump's campaign team colluded with Moscow, and whether there was possible obstruction of justice related to the firing of Comey.
Mueller's team has already charged four people, including Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying over his Russian contacts and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
Trump has repeatedly said there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia.
Downer was Australia's foreign minister from 1996 to 2007 and became high commissioner to Britain in 2014.