Analytical revelations from the Justice Department Inspector General’s report on the conduct of the “Russia-Trump” investigation won’t end any time soon.
The highlights have come out quickly, such as the startling count of 51 procedural violations by the FBI just in forwarding the FISA applications on Carter Page, and the fact that nine of those 51 involved making false statements to the FISA court. In light of these and other findings, the IG report’s conclusion that all this troubling conduct didn’t amount to “bias” on the part of the FBI seems rather … beside the point. Pick another measuring stick, folks. That one is about as useful to our public purpose as Gloria Steinem’s famous bicycle was to a fish.
Whatever we label it – and “bias” is an unimpressive scare word to begin with – a federal law enforcement undertaking so full of violations and false statements is a problem of the highest priority. So call it Petunia, for all I care. Just don’t have the crust to call it something that frames it to be written off. Real, live Americans have to live every day with what we suffer the FBI to do in the name of law and order.
And if the senior officials at headquarters are allowed to misbehave themselves so badly, it doesn’t much matter how honorable the rank and file are.
In any case, although there is surely a lot more to come as the IG report gets its public walk-through, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) bore-sighted Monday evening on the question that must propel us forward.
The IG report only takes us so far. That’s because it accepts the start date of its investigative charter as the day Operation Crossfire Hurricane was launched by the FBI: 31 July 2016.
We’ll learn a lot from looking at the period after that. But the operations of U.S. agencies against (or, if you like, “involving”) members of the Trump campaign were underway well before that. Even if we use the friendlier-sounding term “involving” here, it’s still the case that agencies and personalities that engaged with Trump campaign members after 31 July 2016 were also involved with them before 31 July 2016.
Devin Nunes called that out on Monday. He’s brought this up previously, and didn’t elaborate at length in his segment with Sean Hannity (whose audience wouldn’t need a lengthy explanation). But that’s what he’s referring to here.
— Devin Nunes (@DevinNunes) December 10, 2019
And his question is the essential one. The DOJ IG report looked at the conduct of the FBI and DOJ in Crossfire Hurricane.
But who was coordinating what was being done before Crossfire Hurricane started?
That question gets to the fundamental mystery of how the counter-Trump operation was started, and who was behind it. The motive for the operation can only be ascertained fully by answering these questions. The FBI was a late-comer to the game. It wasn’t “the” string-puller (which was probably a small group, rather than a single individual).
If nothing else, Peter Strzok’s affect in 2016 tells us that. He doesn’t text like someone who has known for months – or years – that Stefan Halper was set onto LTG Michael Flynn back in 2014, or that Carter Page has been working with the FBI since 2013 to take down Russian agents in the United States.
And that’s really the point about the IG report too. The report is framed as if it’s kind of no big deal that there was prior engagement by the actors in its own drama with the Crossfire Hurricane targets: Paul Manafort, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Michael Flynn.
The IG report accepts at face value the narrative that Crossfire Hurricane was initiated on 31 July 2016, based on the nugget from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that in May 2016, George Papadopoulos had told him something about the Russians and incriminating information on Hillary Clinton.
Yet within two weeks of 31 July 2016, this new operation had turned unerringly to a confidential source (Stefan Halper) who had known Paul Manafort for years, had engaged with Michael Flynn back in 2014, and had invited Carter Page to a conference at Cambridge in July 2016 (where Halper and Page happened, according to Halper, to discuss the possibility of Halper joining the Trump campaign), before Crossfire Hurricane started.
Meanwhile, the FBI had had Manafort under investigation several years earlier, and had electronic surveillance of him since 2014 (up through probably March of 2016, when reporting suggests the FISA authority for that surveillance expired).
The FBI had been receiving cooperation from Carter Page in interdicting Russian agents in the U.S. who were trying to recruit Americans.
And Stefan Halper, whom the IG report refers to as Source 2 (with a number of allusions that make Halper the only viable candidate for that designation), had been involved in an apparent attempt to pin the appearance of improper Russian connections on Michael Flynn in 2014.
Papadopoulos, on the other hand, while he had not been approached by Halper before 31 July 2016, had been approached in March 2016 by the Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud, who was well known to the U.S. State Department and ran tame among the top officials of the British and Italian intelligence organizations. Papadopoulos was subsequently approached by Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat with extensive links to the same UK intelligence officials Stefan Halper hosted conferences with at Cambridge multiple times each year.
There are a couple of passages in the IG report that afford an intriguing look at how these remarkable coincidences were accounted for in testimony to the IG.
We are given a little background on Stefan Halper’s (Source 2’s) checkered history as a confidential source (p. 313 as page-numbered in the IG report document):
Source 2 was closed by the FBI in 2011 for “aggressiveness toward handling agents as a result of what [Source 2] perceived as not enough compensation” and “questionable allegiance to the [intelligence] targets” with which Source 2 maintained contact. However, Source 2 was re-opened 2 months later by Case Agent 1, and was handled by Case Agent 1 from 2011 through 2016 as part of Case Agent 1 ‘s regular investigative activities at an FBI field office.
Case Agent 1 remains anonymous in the report and has not been firmly identified by blogosphere analysts. He is referred to as male in the report, however, and was working Crossfire Hurricane in 2016.* He is described as having an extensive history with Source 2 between 2011 and 2016.
Therefore, we get the following characterization a couple of paragraphs later (on p. 314):
Source 2 ‘s involvement in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation arose out of Case Agent 1’s pre-existing relationship with Source 2. Case Agent 1 told the OIG that when he arrived in Washington, D.C. in early August 2016 to join the Crossfire Hurricane team, he had never previously dealt with the “realm” of political campaigns. He said he lacked a basic understanding of simple issues, for example what the role of a “foreign policy advisor” entails, and how that person interacts with the rest of the campaign. Case Agent 1 said he proposed meeting with Source 2 to ask these questions because Case Agent 1 knew that Source 2 had been affiliated with national political campaigns since the early 1970s.
Case Agent 1 seems to have known the source he had been handling since 2011 reasonably well. So this passage in the middle of p. 315 comes across as a bit puzzling:
Source 2 told the Crossfire Hurricane team that Source 2 had known Trump’s then campaign manager, Manafort, for a number of years and that he had been previously acquainted with Michael Flynn. Case Agent 1 told the OIG that “quite honestly … we kind of stumbled upon [Source 2] knowing these folks.” He said that it was “serendipitous” and that the Crossfire Hurricane team “couldn’t believe [their] luck” that Source 2 had contacts with three of their four subjects, including Carter Page.
It strains credulity just a bit, that Case Agent 1, who’d been handling Source 2 since 2011, found it mere “luck” to discover that Source 2 knew Manafort, whom the FBI had investigated intensively since 2011, and had contacted Carter Page, with whom the FBI had worked since 2013, only a couple of weeks before Case Agent 1 joined Crossfire Hurricane.
Perhaps Case Agent 1 had no reason, at least, to know about Source 2’s connection with Michael Flynn. But as for the rest, it sounds for all the world as if Case Agent 1 read a Wikipedia entry on Source 2 to get his background information, and then was disingenuously astonished to find out how relevant to Crossfire Hurricane Source 2’s history would actually be.
Case Agent 1’s protestations sound, in other words, less than credible.
His and the Crossfire Hurricane team’s reported disbelief in their “luck” requires accounting for, given the extensive history of the FBI with everyone that “luck” applied to.
That’s where Devin Nunes’s question comes in. If it wasn’t the FBI that assembled all that “luck” prior to 31 July 2016 – who was it? And was it, as we would reasonably assume, the same maker of “luck” that manufactured a series of contacts in early 2016, and then handed George Papadopoulos to the FBI, tied up with a bow?
Obviously, readers will be waving their hands in the air at this point calling out “Brennan!” But it’s equally obvious John Brennan couldn’t do this alone. Just for starters, the Steele dossier was a key component of the anti-Trump operation, and there is neither need nor evidence for connecting it to Brennan’s instigation (at least not directly).
Moreover, the collaboration that may have come from foreign intelligence agencies (e.g., in Italy and the UK, as well as the notorious grab-bag of other European sources, like Estonia, supposedly plying Brennan with information in early 2016) would have had motives other than merely helping Brennan out with a personal project. For those sources, motives related to their own perceived interests had to be in play.
There are probably reasons the public will never be cleared for why Brennan would have taken a set against Michael Flynn. We know of one reason why senior personnel at the DOJ might have.
Meanwhile, the odd centrality of Ukraine and Paul Manafort to the Russiagate drama seems to have had its origins and motives from other actors: in the State Department, in the Democratic Party, in at least one of the Democrats’ major funders, George Soros. And those origins and motives appear, like the animus against Flynn, to have predated even Donald Trump’s candidacy for president.
Nunes is right. This is what we need to get to the bottom of. All that “luck” the Crossfire Hurricane team stumbled into: who authored it? Will John Durham be able to dig that out? Is he making the attempt?
William Barr’s comments this week, which include a reference to looking at the activities of other agencies (besides the FBI and DOJ), suggest that at least some version of that attempt may be underway. But we don’t know its scope or quality.
If we get a few indictments for things done by DOJ and FBI personnel after 31 July 2016, and if Trump weathers the impeachment frenzy unscathed – and if we complacently accept never knowing the answer to Nunes’s question – we remain at grave risk for something like this happening again. We remain at risk for not understanding the alarming power our government’s intelligence and law enforcement tools can wield over our nation’s future.
That’s why one of the most important things the IG report can do is point us not only to opportunities for indictment, but to discrepancies in testimony and narrative that set channel markers: buoys we can navigate by in chasing down Nunes’s question.
The alarm he raised in early 2017 is what cued both his committee and an interested public to demand the exertions that got us to the DOJ IG report. In his excellent new book The Plot Against the President, journalist Lee Smith recounts much that was previously unreported about Nunes’s efforts and the centrality of his role. Without Nunes, we wouldn’t have the broad public understanding we have today of the truth about Russiagate and Spygate, as opposed to the script written by Fusion GPS and pounded in the media.
I suggest trusting Nunes one more time: that we cannot rest until we know how and with whom this whole business really started.
* Regarding the identity of Case Agent 1, Internet sleuths are lobbying for one of two FBI agents who have spoken at Halper-organized events at Cambridge in the last decade. This tweep suggests one of them (who was an FBI attaché at the U.S. embassy in London from 2012 to early 2016). That agent has been a speaker for Halper at least twice. In an article for The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway had a list of three names – including the one suggested by @TheLegalBrain1 – of FBI agents who appeared at a Halper conference in Cambridge in 2011. Other analysts are partisans of the third name in the 2011 list for Case Agent 1.