The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins cued me to this in his Wednesday op-ed “The Comey Coverup.” In the editorial, Jenkins takes apart James Comey’s citation in his new book of a “development still unknown to the American public to this day” – a development which, as Jenkins puts it, was “central to his [Comey’s] decision to intervene publicly in the Hillary Clinton email case.”
The development in question was the receipt by the FBI, reportedly in March 2016, of “Russian intelligence,” which indicated someone from the Hillary Clinton campaign had confirmed with Loretta Lynch that Lynch would not let the probe of Hillary’s email server go too far.
Comey’s implication about this has been that the suggestion of impropriety in the Justice Department was what drove him to make his own public announcement, in July 2016, that Hillary would not be charged with anything.
Jenkins points out with some acerbity that this is hardly a secret, considering it was all over the news for several days – what Jenkins calls “a few days of furious reporting” – in 2017. He refers here to the days after the Washington Post published a story about it on 24 May 2017. The story, by Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett, is the canonical source usually referred to.
I believe Jenkins asks all the right questions about this episode, and I commend his editorial to you.
He suggests, in particular, that Comey’s depiction of the “secret” is a bit strange, given not only the public attention it got last year, but the FBI’s own reported assessment that the “Russian intelligence” was actually fake.
This point leads naturally to important questions about how it got to the FBI, and why anyone was taking it seriously to begin with.
And that turns out to be a tale of two different stories.
Fascinatingly – and people who have been following this closely may remember it – the Senate probe led by Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was all over this last summer. The Senate Judiciary Committee actually sent letters in June 2017, about a month after the 24 May WaPo story, to Democrats and another individual named by the “Russian intelligence” as having been involved in the confirmation about Loretta Lynch’s quiescence.
Moreover, Lindsey Graham spoke about the allegation to CBS’s Face the Nation on 11 June 2017. In testimony in 2017, Comey had already mentioned the “Russian intelligence” (referred to in the transcript below as an “email”) to the Senate committee, and had told senators it was crucial to his decision about how to handle the Hillary email issue.
But according to Graham, Comey never said the Russian intelligence was fake. The exchange here is between John Dickerson (CBS) and Graham:
GRAHAM: … I want Comey to come to our committee, because I know on two separate occasions, he has told members of the House and the Senate that the main reason he jumped into the election last year and took over the job of attorney general is because he believed there were emails between the Democratic National Committee and the Department of Justice that compromised the Department of Justice, and he thought the Russians were going to release these emails. That’s why he jumped in and took over Loretta Lynch’s job. I want to know, is that true?
DICKERSON: Well, now, though, that email, there’s been some reporting that that was a fake email, or doctored–
GRAHAM: When he told the House and Senate as late–as early as a month ago, he never mentioned it was fake. I don’t know if it’s fake or not. But the F.B.I. called me about this, John, and said that they wanted to brief me because I’ve got some of this wrong.
I saw the Washington Post story. I doubt if it’s fake. Maybe it is. But I don’t want to be briefed by myself. I want Democrats and Republicans on the judiciary to be briefed together. Our committee has been together and we’re going to stay together.
I don’t know why Graham doubted it was fake. The news reporting of it, citing anonymous sources from the FBI and/or DOJ, said the FBI ultimately decided it was fake.
But if Graham’s account is correct, Comey didn’t say that about it in his testimony to the Judiciary Committee.
That is interesting by itself, especially if Comey, in his book, continues to refer to the supposed Russian intelligence as (a) a big secret, and (b) instrumental in his decision about the Hillary email case.
But of equal interest is that the Judiciary Committee, in its letters to the people named in the original news reporting, cites not just the WaPo article from 24 May 2017, but an earlier New York Times article from 22 April 2017. The NYT article alludes to the same basic information: that a Democratic operative confirmed with Loretta Lynch that Lynch wouldn’t let the probe go too far.
But NYT tells a substantially different story from WaPo’s about what the Russian-sourced information was.
That matters, because – in short – these cannot be two different accounts of the same “Russian intelligence.” They either suggest that the “intelligence” came in two different ways, with implications about the Bureau’s handling of it that are pretty fishy – or they suggest that the whole thing is even fishier.
Here is what NYT describes:
During Russia’s hacking campaign against the United States, intelligence agencies could peer, at times, into Russian networks and see what had been taken. Early last year [i.e., in 2016], F.B.I. agents received a batch of hacked documents, and one caught their attention.
The document, which has been described as both a memo and an email, was written by a Democratic operative who expressed confidence that Ms. Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far, according to several former officials familiar with the document.
Read one way, it was standard Washington political chatter. Read another way, it suggested that a political operative might have insight into Ms. Lynch’s thinking.
So: the NYT article has the FBI looking at the original document from a “Democratic operative.” The document was poached by the U.S. (or perhaps an ally) from the Russians’ files of hacked documents, according to this account. (Disclosing that to NYT is another issue; of course, no one who knows about such a thing should be disclosing it.)
Now compare that with what WaPo describes:
In the midst of the 2016 presidential primary season, the FBI received what was described as a Russian intelligence document claiming a tacit understanding between the Clinton campaign and the Justice Department over the inquiry into whether she intentionally revealed classified information through her use of a private email server.
The Russian document cited a supposed email describing how then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had privately assured someone in the Clinton campaign that the email investigation would not push too deeply into the matter. If true, the revelation of such an understanding would have undermined the integrity of the FBI’s investigation. …
The document, obtained by the FBI, was a piece of purported analysis by Russian intelligence, the people said. It referred to an email supposedly written by the then-chair of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), and sent to Leonard Benardo, an official with the Open Society Foundations, an organization founded by billionaire George Soros and dedicated to promoting democracy.
The Russian document did not contain a copy of the email, but it described some of the contents of the purported message.
In the supposed email, Wasserman Schultz claimed Lynch had been in private communication with a senior Clinton campaign staffer named Amanda Renteria during the campaign. The document indicated Lynch had told Renteria that she would not let the FBI investigation into Clinton go too far, according to people familiar with it.
This description is certainly laden with detail. And the detail goes on to directly contradict the claim in the NYT article. Emphasis added:
From the moment the bureau received the document from a source in early March 2016, its veracity was the subject of an internal debate at the FBI. Several people familiar with the matter said the bureau’s doubts about the document hardened in August when officials became more certain that there was nothing to substantiate the claims in the Russian document. FBI officials knew the bureau never had the underlying email with the explosive allegation, if it ever existed.
So, which is it? Did the FBI receive a copy of an original email from a Democratic operative, after “intelligence agencies” got a look at what the Russians had been hacking from the Democrats?
Or did the FBI receive a copy of a “Russian intelligence assessment,” based on an email from the Democratic operative that the FBI never actually saw?
If there is one, single story behind this – a true set of facts – it would be extremely curious that anonymous sources would tell the story to two news outlets in such contradictory terms. Inside the FBI (or cognizant offices in DOJ), the ground truth would have to have been known. Intelligence sources may be elliptical mysteries to the public, but they are not to practitioners. Bogus claims about what can be known from what kinds of intel sources are immediately apparent. No honest mistake or lack of knowledge on the part of the leakers could account for the contradictions here. If they didn’t have definitive details, one or both of these couldn’t be legitimate leaks.
Yet if both of the news stories are true, or if only the WaPo one is, there seems to be no way to legitimately account for James Comey taking this “Russian intelligence” to heart, and basing the biggest decision of his professional career on it.
You can’t even make up a plausible narrative that accommodates all these pieces. It does raise questions about the “leaks” that are being planted with the major media.
I have the feeling this discrepancy will be a useful data point in the not-too-distant future.
In the meantime, I emphasize that the individuals named in the WaPo story from May 2017 have all denied involvement, and should be held blameless, as far as we can tell right now – at least in the matter of Comey’s much-cited “secret” intelligence about the Hillary case.