There have been two major new blasts of information in the last 48 hours. One is the less-redacted version of the Grassley-Graham memo that was released on Monday.
The other is a fresh batch of 2015-2016 texts between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which were included with an interim report from the Senate Homeland Security Committee on its probe of the DOJ/FBI Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Regarding the Grassley-Graham memo, Kimberley Strassel has a nice tweet-thread summary, including the point that the “Clinton friend” referred to in the memo appears to be Sidney Blumenthal.
1) Why isn't the (mostly) unredacted Grassley memo front page news? Here's why: Because it confirms the Nunes memo and blows up the Schiff talking points (which the media ran with).
— Kimberley Strassel (@KimStrassel) February 7, 2018
LU contributor Jeff Dunetz highlighted that yesterday as well. That still leaves two other names: the associate of Blumenthal who gave Blumenthal the information (I assume that person, for now, to be Cody Shearer), and Blumenthal’s contact at the State Department. As discussed in my 5 February post on the Grassley-Graham memo, it’s likely we know who that individual is. I wrote about him and his extensive links to high-level Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, back in December.
But it’s the Strzok-Page texts I want to look at today, and in particular, the one that has social media on fire right now. It’s a text from 2 September 2016, in which Lisa Page utters the fateful words:
Yes, bc potus wants to know everything we are doing.
“Potus” was, of course, Obama at the time. Did this text from her mean that Obama wanted to know everything that was going on with an FBI activity that Page and Strzok were both involved in?
It appears so. The full exchange can be viewed via the link at the Senate committee site linked above. It’s also screen-capped here. (In all the screen-capped exchanges, INBOX = Peter Strzok and OUTBOX = Lisa Page.)
Along with an annotated transcript of the exchange:
[Strzok] Checkout my 9:30 mtg on the 7th
[Page] l can tell you why you’re having that meeting.
lt’s not what you think.
[Strzok] TPs for D? [I.e., talking points for the Director (Comey)?]
[Page] Yes, bc potus wants to know everything we are doing.
[Strzok] l’m sure an honest answer will come out of that
meeting …. U0001f612
The question is what the subject of the meeting and the talking points was to be. Was it about the Hillary Clinton email investigation? Was it about Russia and the election campaign? Or was it something else?
Wednesday evening, it was reported on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News broadcast that sources “close to Lisa Page” say it was about “Russiagate.” So that’s one data point.
Looking through the mass of text messages, I conclude that it probably was about the Russia-election topic. There are a few reasons for that. One is that right at the end of July 2016, the feel and focus of the text exchanges shifted markedly. They became more filled with the election in general, and the election’s import as well as suspicions about Russia in particular, than they had been before. This seemed to occur right after the Democratic National Convention.
This interesting exchange on 30 July 2016 served to mark the break:
Over the next week (through about 5 August), the Strzok-Page texts suddenly became populated with discussions of events overseas (e.g., at an unnamed embassy in London), meetings about things apparently related to that, for which they needed to prepare (and prepare in a way that differed from what they were doing about the Hillary case), and notably vituperative comments about Russians.
Although they continued to refer to work on the Hillary case (“MYE,” or Mid-Year Exam), it no longer appeared to preoccupy them as it had before mid-July.
Note also that the Strzok text on 2 September that reads “Checkout my 9:30 mtg on the 7th” comes out of the blue. It isn’t prompted by the previous topic, which in any case was concluded nearly 12 hours before, based on the text time hacks.
Strzok clearly wants to highlight this meeting as noteworthy. Page knows what it’s about (she worked as counsel in the Deputy Director’s office), and appears to have known more than Strzok. That would suggest it was about emergent tasking from higher up.
And the meeting was about talking points for Comey. At that point in the Hillary case, meeting to frame talking points for Comey about that case would not have been an eye-opener of any kind. (Strzok would have been fully in the loop on the purpose of such a meeting anyway.)
We can also say that in hindsight, nothing happened in early or mid-September 2016 that would match up with FBI officials crafting talking points for the director on the “Hillary” topic.
But Comey had just been presented with a letter from (then) Senator Harry Reid, dated 27 August 2016, expressing urgent concern about “Russia,” the election, and the Trump campaign. Reid wanted the FBI to investigate what Reid had been briefed on shortly before he sent the letter, information that included themes we would see later from John Brennan’s CIA, but in tone and substance was also interestingly similar to what Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele would be shopping to media outlets over the next three weeks.
Strzok and Page briefly mention the Reid letter in a text exchange on 30 August.
They don’t explicitly connect the Reid letter to the talking points for Comey and the meeting set up for 7 September. But it appears likely that the “Russia” topic was the purpose of that meeting.
So Obama was in the loop
I was writing about this just a day ago. Life is coming at us fast. The point that we should have known before now what President Obama himself was doing about “Russia Russia Russia” remains a valid one – and in fact even more so because of the way we’re finding out what he seems to have done.
This text reference by Lisa Page doesn’t answer the mail on whether the Obama administration was handling this in a formally above-board manner. Instead, it tends to do the opposite. It indicates that undisclosed activities were occurring, at a level of government where we should have been able to expect a reassuring openness and tenders of good faith.
If Russians really were trying to “hack” the U.S. election, the American people shouldn’t find out a year and a half later that the president “wanted to know everything” some worker bees in the FBI were doing – and yet never made clarifying explanations to the public. What the previous president did was opaque, uninformative, and left the impression that the matter itself was too vague to make sense of, but was somehow deeply alarming. (I note that there may well be room, at the end of all this, to levy a similar criticism at the Trump administration. I’m reserving judgment on that until we find out what the full scope of this thing has been. It may have been necessary to investigate people and events close to the vest, in order to figure out what happened, and uncover what some individuals were diligently trying to cover up. Even the Mueller investigation may be of inadvertent assistance in that regard, apart from its own, separately focused charter.)
If the “Russia” narrative was legitimate – something real going on – it was a national security crisis, and one for which the president should have connected the dots for us, and been visibly at the helm for the whole thing. There are no circumstances under which there can be an excuse for not doing it that way. No consideration of secrecy is more important that the people’s confidence in our government, and the president’s national security leadership. Secrets all age out over time, but a loss of political confidence may well be irrecoverable.
To the questions
Since we did not get that leadership at the time, but were left to consume elliptical clues leaked to the media, here are some of the big questions we need to answer.
Framing these questions usefully is possible now, if we can assume that POTUS did indeed want to know everything the FBI was doing about “Russia.”
1. When did DOJ and FBI begin treating “Russia” as an election-threatening narrative? We need to know when their role began, independent of whether it was an above-board role or not. The timing will help us determine whether it was above-board.
Key points of interest include whether Carter Page – who had a history with the FBI – was actually on the Bureau’s radar as a suspicious “Trump-Russia” indicator before the first FBI meeting with Christopher Steele, reportedly on 5 July 2016.
Who in the FBI, if anyone, knew before that meeting about Nellie Ohr’s employment with Fusion GPS? And, of the former DOJ and FBI career men at Perkins Coie and CrowdStrike, which ones knew and/or were in contact with active employees of DOJ and FBI in 2016 — especially at the time of the DNC system intrusion at the end of April and in May 2016?
2. What was the exact nature of the surveillance database searches run on Carter Page, once the FISA approval was obtained sometime after 21 October 2016? As I explained on 30 January, the FISA approval enabled the FBI to look backward through the communications of Page and everyone he communicated with. I assume, since Page never had any real role with the Trump campaign, that he was simply the only person connected with it that the FBI could get new surveillance approval for – but that it was the communications of others that the FBI was really interested in.
We need to know what the FBI’s “surveillance” searches looked like between October 2016 and October 2017, when the last 90-day extension expired. That will tell us the real purpose of the surveillance. It will probably also tell us more, because it leads to the next question.
3. What coordination was there between the FBI, DOJ, and members of the National Security Council and/or the intelligence community regarding the surveillance and unmasking of U.S. persons in 2016? Who was involved?
This question comes to the fore, if we know that “POTUS wanted to know everything the FBI was doing.” That clue, assuming it means what it sounds like, tells us that the White House had full visibility on the entire “Russia” operation within the administration – whatever that operation was.
If the operation was a good-faith effort to analyze what Russia was doing, determine whether Trump had a role in it, and defend America against a defined threat – again, what we would have seen from the Obama administration in the latter half of 2016 would have been very different.
But if the operation was something else, something not formal, above-board, or in good faith, then specific information on the FBI surveillance and the unmaskings done using Susan Rice’s, John Brennan’s, and Samantha Power’s credentials would tell us a lot.
When in 2016 were these unmaskings ordered by national security personnel? An important aspect of unmasking is that it’s necessary because you don’t know who the individuals involved in certain communications are. Unmasking is typically related to a pattern of those unknown individuals’ communications with someone you do recognize. But where would “Susan Rice” or “Samantha Power” gain the “big picture” of communication patterns with such recognized persons to begin with?
There had to be an analytical effort – an organized analysis of multi-party communications – going on somewhere, to prompt the unmaskings done using those national security officials’ credentials. Was the Carter Page surveillance a contributing part of that effort?
Were unmaskings performed from the Executive Office of the President (EOP) because that was where they could be ordered up without being confronted by procedural objections from Admiral Michael Rogers at NSA? Remember, Rogers had been working with the FISA court since 2015 to clean up the known problem that too many analyst-level queries against the NSA database were being run in an unauthorized manner: one that exposed U.S. person information improperly to analysts. This was treated by NSA managers, working to rectify it, as “accidental” or “inadvertent.”
Starting around March-April 2016, Rogers clamped down on the way the queries in question could be run by analysts, a move that would have affected users at the FBI as well as at NSA. This would have meant that analysts had less ability to “accidentally” get unauthorized query results.
But if you could deploy, say, Susan Rice’s credentials as an unmasking authority – credentials that could unmask for national security purposes, without needing to represent probable cause to the FISA court – there was no need to get your query results “accidentally.” Querying on behalf of “Susan Rice,” you could unmask U.S. persons through the front door.
You couldn’t do that from the FBI, of course. You had to do it from within the EOP organization, presumably the NSC staff.
It is by no means impossible that surveillance of Carter Page enabled EOP staffers to determine which correspondents of Page – and potentially correspondents of their correspondents – to unmask. Perhaps it wasn’t the only method of identifying U.S. persons to unmask. The formal surveillance of Page wasn’t even approved until late October 2016, at the earliest. But Paul Manafort had been under FBI surveillance since before the 2016 campaign, and that surveillance reportedly continued during at least part of the campaign. A handoff of communications analysis, based on the authorized surveillance of Manafort and Page — but actually focused on their correspondents — is the most likely key to any targeted unmaskings done out of the EOP.
We need to find out if that’s what happened. Strzok and Page probably don’t know – but someone does.