Although it’s time to begin shifting the focus of Russiagate analysis to an earlier period – before March of 2016 – the Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. raised a still-unadjudicated point this past week that merits at least one more look at that busy month.
In his column on Friday, 15 June, Jenkins continues a series of essential pieces he has done on some supposed “Russian-hacking intelligence,” about an assurance from Loretta Lynch to the Hillary Clinton campaign that Lynch wouldn’t let the email probe “go too far.” His concern is that the truth about that remains hidden in the classified appendix to the Justice Department IG report, and that the appendix needs to be released. (Ben Bowles wrote about this at LU on Tuesday.)
Readers can be pardoned for not remembering what that story’s about. James Comey has brought it up repeatedly, and the media have dutifully given it oxygen each time. But they don’t flog it endlessly with the purpose of making it a core element of the Russiagate narrative. As Russiagate side-dramas go, it has been flying under the radar.
It may, however, be the key to quite a bit. I wrote about it in April 2018, right after Comey alluded to it once again in his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, when he was kicking off his book tour.
The short version: leakers disclosed, back in April and May 2017, that the FBI had received information before the election about the Russians having a hacked email in which Debbie Wasserman Schultz discussed Lynch’s alleged guarantee to the Clinton campaign.
The information reportedly reached the FBI in early March 2016.
Wasserman Schultz’s correspondent in that email was supposedly a man named Leonard Benardo, an official with George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The content of the email was alleged to be a claim that Lynch had told Hillary staffer Amanda Renteria that she (Lynch) wouldn’t let the email probe go too far, and implicitly damage the Clinton campaign.
None of this is proven (the named principals all deny it), and the story is not even clear on whether anyone in the U.S. claims to have actually seen the purported original email. The story, as told, is that the FBI knew about the claim of such an email through some form of intelligence about what Russia was hacking from the Democrats. It was Russian communications that indicated the existence of such an email.
The FBI, we are also told, came to believe that the information about the original DWS email was false – even if the Russians believed it. The story on that has been all over the map; there are some claims that the whole thing was dezinformatsiya by the Russians, and others that perhaps the Russians thought they really had something, but the FBI couldn’t corroborate it. Notably, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in 2017 that Comey had never suggested the intelligence itself was “fake.” (See my link, above.)
The reason it remains of such interest is that James Comey keeps coming back to it as a major motive for his decision to announce an exoneration of Hillary in July 2016. He explains that he didn’t want the eventual declassification of this information to make it appear that Loretta Lynch had acted improperly, especially after she held the tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton at the end of June 2016. Basically, Comey implies he decided to take a bullet and make the tough call himself.
This alibi is no more than thinly plausible, if that, but the quality of its plausibility depends on what was really involved in the intelligence. As discussed below, if there was nothing to it, Comey should have had no qualms about it ever coming out.
When I wrote in April, however, the point that was most important was this: the Washington Post and the New York Times had two irreconcilably different stories about this “intelligence.” Both stories could not be true. The key comparison is reflected here:
So, which is it? Did the FBI receive a copy of an original email from a Democratic operative [i.e., DWS], after “intelligence agencies” got a look at what the Russians had been hacking from the Democrats? [This is the Washington Post version.]
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? [This is the New York Times version.]
In the WaPo version, there was actually a DWS email to see. To falsify that version, the FBI process would entail demonstrating that the email was faked.
In the NYT version, U.S. recipients of the “intelligence” never saw the supposed DWS email. Falsifying that version would involve impugning another aspect of the chain of information, such as how reliable the intelligence portal into Russian information was, whether it accurately reflected what the Russians really thought, etc.
Or: it could have involved showing that the FBI was unable to find the alleged DWS email.
This didn’t have to be an unsolved mystery for the FBI
I want you to think about that for a moment. Most of these stories about little pieces of intelligence are retailed to the public as if they are puzzling clues (or perhaps telling ones, depending on the impression we’re supposed to be left with), about which our government implicitly knows little more than we do.
But we, even in the cheap seats out here, actually know more than we think we do. And we need be in no doubt that our government agencies know that they know more.
Attention, class. If the FBI gets wind of a DWS email, what do you suppose the FBI is going to do to verify whether such an email might exist?
Not read it, necessarily. But find out whether it may exist.
That’s right. However it’s done – whether through a legitimate, front-door process or through the shadier back door – the FBI has the means to determine whether there are candidates for the alleged email. Did Wasserman Schultz ever send an email that went to Leonard Benardo? It’s not even a secret that the FBI doesn’t have to spend eternity wondering that.
No one with privileged access to the intelligence resources of the U.S. government has to simply wonder. The public has known that for years. This one is not even hard.
Moreover, it’s not just the DWS email the FBI could test the proposition of, by digging into the metadata of the DWS communications. (Again, this could have been done lawfully, through the front door, or unlawfully, through the back door – as demonstrated in rampant misuse by rank-and-file users of “non-contents queries” against the NSA database between 2013 and 2016, as well as the separate unmasking practices of top NSC officials. Either way, the point is that the FBI could know within hours of receiving the tip whether there were any communications they might need to get contents for.)
The communications of Loretta Lynch and Amanda Renteria could also be dug into. It wouldn’t matter if emails or text messages had been deleted by the sender or recipient, because there would still be a record in the telecom provider’s database that the contact had – potentially, probably, or certainly – occurred. That metadata record doesn’t go away when the email file is deleted. And the FBI has access to it, as non-private information, without getting a warrant.
The same is true of phone calls. The record remains, resident with the service provider, and it doesn’t require a warrant to get it. The FBI would have no trouble narrowing down whether there was a phone call between numbers associated with Lynch and Renteria.
It may be that the FBI found nothing to corroborate the supposed Russian intelligence. That actually still makes it odd that, as far as we know, three of the principals – DWS, Benardo, and Renteria – have never been interviewed or even approached about it by the FBI. Lynch was reportedly given a defensive briefing about it in August 2016, but was assured that she was not being interviewed about it as part of an FBI investigation.
Why is it odd that there have been no interviews? Because if this was something real enough to drive Comey’s decisions, it had to be real enough to follow up on. Yet the story told in April and May of 2017 only makes sense if it wasn’t followed up on at the time.
And that’s the story Comey was still telling in April of 2018.
It is essential to understand all this, in approaching how the “Russian hacking intelligence” story was leaked – i.e., in two inconsistent versions – and how Comey has used it. The impression of what the FBI knew about it, and what it concluded, has been gratuitously fuzzy.
In reality, the FBI should have had a good enough idea about the truth of the matter for Comey to do exactly the opposite of what he says he did. Bluntly, he should not have felt compelled to consider the “Russian intelligence” as an “appearance of corruption” factor in his decisions about Hillary.
If the FBI knew there was nothing to the Russian information, all Comey had to do was line his ducks up on that, and leave the public explaining about the Hillary investigation where it belonged, with Lynch.
If the FBI thought there might be something to the Russian information, the Bureau should at least have interviewed the principals. And if it appeared that Lynch herself was compromised – well, that’s when that “higher loyalty” stuff kicks in. But in a situation so legitimately explosive, you, the FBI director, don’t mount a one-man political rescue mission and put yourself behind a microphone to talk in circles for half an hour. You go tell the president you’ve got a big problem – because decisions about something of that magnitude aren’t your call. They’re his.
The Obama factor
Unless, perhaps, the president is the highest official whose own complicity could be exposed in the metastasizing Hillary email scandal, and you already know that.
The earlier release of FBI and Justice Department documents from the period May to July 2016 (cited by the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2018) suggested that Comey had to be aware that Obama corresponded with Hillary via her private email account. And, as Lee Smith highlighted in his recent article for American Greatness, the Horowitz IG report confirmed that categorically.
Not only was Obama one of the top government officials who used Hillary’s private email account to connect with her about government business; there was at least one email exchange between Hillary and Obama when she was on travel to and from St. Petersburg, Russia in 2012.
There may have been others; that’s one that we know about. A significant point about this, for intelligence types, is that the Russian state itself would have had a unique opportunity to vacuum in Hillary’s unprotected trons, as well as those of anyone corresponding with her using that private email address (including staff traveling with her), during her travel.
Smith points out in his article that Hillary’s home-brew server was compromised by someone (unknown) on 5 January 2013. No specifics on that have been presented to the public, but it’s obviously possible that the historical files of her email correspondence were exposed in that compromise, including correspondence with President Obama.
Like Holman Jenkins, Lee Smith has very good questions about what this all means, including how this circumstance would affect Obama’s state of mind regarding the Hillary investigation, and even how it might point more clearly – and earlier in the timeline – to a decision to weaponize the resources of the federal government against Trump as the Republican candidate. It could certainly be a reason for Obama to have the same motivation as Hillary to keep Trump from winning.
The security alertment factor
We see that in even stronger relief if we look at an aspect of this saga suggested by Dan Bongino’s point from a Fox News segment this past week.
Speaking with Tucker Carlson on Friday, Bongino, a former Secret Service agent, observed that for Obama to be able to use Hillary’s private email address, it had to be “whitelisted” by his tech aides in his own devices.
That security precaution for the POTUS-berry is an obvious one, in fact, and it means more than simply that Obama couldn’t have been truthful, when he said in 2015 that he’d had no idea Hillary was using a private email account for her government business.
It means that he and his staff knew she was doing it, and at a level that provokes us to rethink what the big picture on this entire matter had to look like, as far back as when Hillary was using the account as Secretary of State.
Taken together, these factors start to shape up for us a somewhat different picture from the one created by the media narrative on Russiagate. We will look at aspects of that, as they flow from the “Russian hacking intelligence” story, in Part 2 and Part 3.