As clues have dribbled out over time, we have developed a fuller understanding of how the Spygate operation staggered to life during the 2016 election campaign. At each step of the process, we have worked with what we have to try to put together a coherent narrative.
There are still significant pieces missing, at least for the public. We don’t know yet what U.S. Attorney John Durham has come up with in his investigation, which has been underway now for about a year.
But some recent analysis helped solidify, for me, the need to look into exactly what John Brennan was doing in the period between his odd, secretive trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming 1-3 August 2015, and the spring of 2016, when the best-known events of Spygate began to crowd the calendar. (The visit to Jackson Hole was the one during which Brennan had the opportunity to meet with Bill Clinton, when they were both in town for a conference sponsored by a billionaire physician and drug developer. There is no direct proof that they met. But there was also no apparent reason for Brennan to participate in the conference, at which he made one appearance on a panel with publisher Steve Forbes.)
We know from a December 2019 report that John Durham has asked for records of Brennan’s activities from the Spygate period, and we can hope that probe is fruitful. Meanwhile, this article will be a relatively brief treatment of three threads running through March 2016 that definitely invite another look at Brennan. There is considerably more detail at the links included below.
Thread One: The data breach
Two of the threads I and others have already developed at length. One is the discovery at the FBI that civilian contractors had improperly had access to “U.S. person information” (USPI) unmasked from communications data being retrieved by FBI analysts, ostensibly for legitimate FBI operations. That discovery was a major event in the timeline of NSA Director Mike Rogers’s efforts in 2016 to clamp down on such access, which had gotten wildly out of control starting in about 2012.
I believe the date of that discovery was on or shortly before 9 March 2016, the day Lisa Page, FBI attorney and girlfriend of Peter Strzok, texted Strzok about a major dust-up at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Given the slow-grinding gears of bureaucracy, it is likely that the data exposure was known to closely-involved supervisors up to several days before 9 March. The best guess would be that relevant people would have first been aware of it sometime between 2 and 8 March. The 9th was a Wednesday; one scenario would have the exposure being discovered over the previous weekend.
I also continue to work on the theory that the contractors involved were employees of a firm previously headed by John Brennan (from 2005 to late 2008). The firm’s name is The Analysis Corporation, or TAC, which had become a subsidiary of Sotera, and obtained years-long federal contracts, in 2008 and 2009, to operate the case and intelligence databases that would hold such sensitive data at the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
A key component of this theory is Brennan’s primary involvement, in 2011-2012, in brokering a method of sharing forms of personal information about Americans between the FBI and NCTC. At the time, Brennan was on Obama’s National Security Council as the counterterrorism “czar.”
Although there is no direct proof of it in public information, it is not only possible but likely that, given this background, Brennan was aware at the time of the data exposure kerfuffle erupting at the FBI, and may well have known about it before the FBI’s senior officials did. The company Brennan used to run, peopled with some of his old associates, operated the systems and databases through which the exposure in March 2016 most probably occurred.
It’s not possible to survey this scenario and avoid thinking that TAC, and therefore Brennan, knew all along that the USPI was being compromised via contractor access. That definitely falls in the category of requiring proof, however. There is none, and we won’t assume it here. But it should be held as a question.
Thread Two: The kompromat on Lynch
The second thread is that of the mysterious “Russian intelligence” that supposedly indicated Loretta Lynch had assured the Clinton campaign, in early 2016, that the Justice Department’s investigation of Hillary’s email “matter” wouldn’t “go too far.”
This story has never consisted of more than a handful of details. It first came to light in a New York Times article in April 2017, which was followed by a Washington Post report from May 2017. Those pieces were then followed up by more discussion in a hearing with James Comey in June 2017.
The gist of the story was that the Russians had gained access by some method to an email exchange involving Debbie Wasserman Shultz and an employee of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. In the exchange, Wasserman Shultz is said to have claimed that then-Attorney General Lynch told a Clinton staffer named Amanda Renteria that the investigation of Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be allowed to go too far.
James Comey’s role, according to him, was being made aware of this information, sourced to Russian intelligence, in March 2016. It was the basis of his decision to clear Hillary on the emails “matter” himself, in early July 2016, rather than standing back for Lynch to do it. He asserted this in his memoir, published in 2018, as well as alluding to it in the June 2017 testimony to the Senate.
As discussed in my first report on this topic, the two sources – NYT and WaPo – gave substantially different versions of the form in which this Russian intelligence came to Comey at the FBI. The detailed analysis of that is at the link; the important thing is that the descriptions of the intelligence are distinctly different, and cannot be about the same intelligence method.
That doesn’t mean there was no such intelligence; or, to put it more precisely, it doesn’t mean that nothing happened that Comey could frame as such intelligence, and claim that he based his decision on.
Comey did stick to his guns on that point. After the initial “leak” of the story in April 2017, the detail was added in public reporting that the so-called Russian intelligence had been determined to be fake. But Comey testified in June 2017 that he had taken it seriously and based his decision about the Hillary emails case on it. Lindsey Graham, who participated in the hearing, said afterward that Comey had made no reference to the information being “fake.”
In his memoir the next year, A Higher Loyalty, Comey wrote about the intelligence again as if he took it seriously, and repeated that he had made his big decision based partly on the concern that it should not become known and make the internal processes at DOJ and FBI seem corrupt.
In the interim since mid-2018, we have learned that DOJ IG Michael Horowitz reviewed that “Russian intelligence” in his probe of the handling of the Hillary emails case. He effectively confirmed in a congressional hearing that the material did exist (although he didn’t comment on whether it was valid). His statement about it was that he couldn’t include a reference to it in the IG report on his investigation, because it was too highly classified even for the non-public version.
Reporter Paul Sperry’s sources told him the classification was Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). Although that is certainly a high classification, the touchiness about how highly classified it is sounds disproportionate – to my ear – to garden-variety TS/SCI material. I suspect that, if it’s valid, it bears a more compartmented classification, although I obviously won’t speculate further on that head.
The most interesting thing about the information itself is still that it was retailed via leaks in two incompatible versions. That’s a red flag about the validity of its alleged origin in Russian intelligence.
The other big thing we learned since mid-2018 seems to make the flag a bit redder. In her own congressional testimony in December 2018 (see p. 103), Loretta Lynch acknowledged receiving a defensive briefing in the “late summer” of 2016 about something generally resembling this information. But she was quite vague about it, and under questioning she never came to explicitly affirm that Comey’s details about the Russian intelligence were what she was defensively briefed on. (The timing of her brief would have put it during the kickoff of Crossfire Hurricane.)
Yet Comey, again, has been categorical about it, and has never recanted the narrative. What my ear picks up on here is a story Comey needs to have on the record. There is probably something behind it, given that IG Horowitz referred to actual material he couldn’t include in his Clinton investigation report. But there seems to be at least a 50% chance that its character and relation to the events of 2016 were a concoction of Spygate.
That concoction entered the picture in March 2016. It’s worth noting a never-emphasized point here: that the supposed kompromat – if it was Russian intelligence on an email from Debbie Wasserman Shultz – would have involved (light bulb!) the Russians reading Wasserman Shultz’s emails.
It is quite interesting, in fact, that no one has made a bigger point of this, since it tends to bolster the narrative about the Russians hacking Democratic email servers in 2016.
We’ve been told that the Russians had successfully spearphished John Podesta’s account by March 2016, which would have given them access to Wasserman Shultz’s DNC email account. The obviousness of this connection makes a striking contrast to the absence of discussion about it in the “kompromat on Lynch” narrative.
Maybe that’s because if the FBI knew in March 2016 that the Russians were reading Democrats’ emails and exploiting them for intelligence, and yet the FBI pottered around apparently doing nothing until weeks later when the “DNC hack” was formally detected (on 29 April), it might seem … inexplicable.
Thread Three: The Carter Page saga
We won’t rehash everything about Carter Page here. I want to focus on a specific aspect of the timeline in March 2016 – extending into the “spring of 2016” – that was highlighted for me in some pointed analysis presented in recent tweet threads by Stephen McIntyre (@ClimateAudit), @MonsieurAmerica, and @supersleuthgrl.
Rather than convert their tweets and replies into an extended narrative, I will ask readers to peruse them for the details. The source material they’re using is (mostly) the DOJ IG report on the handling of the FISA applications on Page. The base thread is McIntyre’s (click through for the whole thread); look for replies from the other two tweeps.
Here's a little discussed excerpt from Horowitz Report. After blowup between NYFO and Carter Page on Mar 2, 2016, NYFO contacted FBIHQ Counterespionage Section (in Counterintelligence Division) about opening investigation on Page. Received approval email from Section on April 1 pic.twitter.com/SRjA0D6xfb
— Stephen McIntyre (@ClimateAudit) February 24, 2020
The bottom line is this: on 2 March, the FBI’s New York Field Office (NYFO), which had handled the case of the three Russian intelligence officers indicted in 2015 based in part on their contacts with Carter Page, informed the FBI headquarters of concerns about Page from their last interview with him. In the interview, Page had told one of the agents that he informed Russians whom he had spoken to at a UN function that he (Page) was “Male 1” in the federal indictment of the Russian intelligence officers. He said he did this in the “spirit of openness.”
By 6 April 2016 (not surprisingly, perhaps), the NYFO had opened an investigation of Page. Eventually that investigation was transferred to Crossfire Hurricane (the date was officially 10 August 2016, when investigations of George Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort were also opened as part of Crossfire Hurricane).
Famously, the FBI officials handling the Crossfire Hurricane case failed in numerous aspects of their duty as they assembled material for the FISA applications on Page. One of those aspects, highlighted in the IG report, was failing to include information that Page had been an approved source for “another U.S. government agency” (the CIA) during a timeframe relevant to the background material presented in the FISA application.
The years for which the CIA certified Page’s status, in a 17 August 2016 memo to the FBI, were 2008 to 2013. The IG report discusses the memo and its information, and the FBI’s failure to include it in the FISA application, at great length. (There are too many scattered pages with this material to bother citing them. Do a word search in the IG report on “August 17” and you will encounter all the relevant content from the memo.)
Here is where it gets interesting for me. With that outline in mind, back up to a report that in the “spring of 2016,” according to Loretta Lynch (as told to the IG investigators), Comey and Andrew McCabe took her aside after a weekly meeting and told her some “information about Carter Page.”
Here is what she described (see p. 110 of the OIG PDF, denoted as p. 75 of the original document):
Comey and McCabe pulled her aside and provided information about Carter Page, which Lynch believed they learned from another member of the Intelligence Community. According to Lynch, Comey and McCabe provided her with information indicating that Russian intelligence reportedly planned to use Page for information and to develop other contacts in the United States, and that they were interested in his affiliation with the campaign. Lynch told us that her understanding was that this information from Comey and McCabe was “preliminary” in that they did not state that any decisions or actions needed to be taken that day. She said that they discussed the possibility of providing a defensive briefing to the Trump campaign, but she believed it was “preliminary” and “something that might happen down the road.”
This is of special interest to me because this description doesn’t sound like a reference to Carter Page’s contacts with Russians and connection with the CIA from the period 2008-2013.
Lynch’s account sounds like a description of something the FBI had recently learned about contemporary events. And the way Lynch was briefed on it, in vague terms and apparently without documentation, doesn’t hit the note you’d expect if Comey and McCabe were talking about what a guy did more than three years earlier.
Moreover, Lynch believed they learned it from “another member of the Intelligence Community.” But in March 2016, what the FBI is documented by the IG to have recently learned about Page came from the NYFO, its own subordinate office.
The analysis being done out there of the informal “spring 2016” brief to Lynch tries to relate it to the older history of Page’s contacts with Russians and the CIA, implicitly as if that’s what Comey and McCabe were talking about. But I suspect it wasn’t.
If they got information about Page from “another member of the Intelligence Community” in the spring of 2016, it’s a better bet that the information came from a CIA source that would deposit it directly with Comey or McCabe (or another very senior official at the FBI). And it was probably about contemporary events.
That doesn’t mean it was true. Perhaps it was, but the Spygate saga has given us no reason to think so. Someone from the CIA might well have planted it as information about Page, intending to then make it seem true.
Recall that Page had been tagged for the Trump foreign policy advisory team by February 2016. Before 2 March, it would have been possible to know that Page was in touch with the Trump campaign (i.e., possible for someone monitoring the communications of Paul Manafort, as was reportedly being done at the time.* Manafort had begun communicating with members of the Trump team in the fall of 2015. That would have put the communications metadata of Corey Lewandowski and Sam Clovis, who interviewed Carter Page, within two hops of Manafort).
Key events and contacts with Page by Spygate actors then occurred before Crossfire Hurricane was launched. It was on 24 April 2016 that the first email contact was made with Page for arranging his speeches at the Russian New Economic School (NES) in July 2016. That information comes from interview summaries of the persons involved, including the Rector of the NES, Shlomo Weber, whom the FBI interviewed in July 2017. Weber, of note, had been a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for many years before assuming the Rector’s mantle at the NES.
(The interview with Shlomo Weber seems to indicate, in some of the redacted words, that Page was introduced to him through his son Yuval Weber, also an academic with an extensive c.v. Interestingly enough, Yuval Weber was a David L. Boren fellow in the National Security Education Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center in 2011-2012. Former Oklahoma Senator Boren, a Democrat, has had a longstanding friendship with John Brennan, and was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee for many years. Yuval Weber also participates in a number of the same think-tank forums as McCain aide David Kramer – drop-in-the-park guy for the notorious Steele dossier handoff in December 2016 – and is an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, as John Brennan also is. None of this is dispositive as regards agency or motive in connecting Page with the NES for the 2016 commencement. But it’s one vista on the opportunities for making that connection.)
Also in July 2016, and apparently in the works by early June, Page attended the conference in the UK at which he was first approached by Stefan Halper – three weeks before the FBI formally acknowledges having thought up Crossfire Hurricane, or siccing any confidential human sources (including Halper) on a Crossfire Hurricane subject.
Keep in mind, moreover, that the Halper doctoral student who invited Page and was his point of contact for the July 2016 conference had his own links to Brennan and the CIA.
It would explain these probes (set-ups?) of Carter Page, with the CIA lurking opportunely in the background, if what Comey and McCabe briefed Lynch on in the “spring of 2016” was information from the CIA – probably Brennan himself – that the FBI was supposed to perceive as being of contemporary significance. (It would also comport with the timing of the Joseph Mifsud overtures to George Papadopoulos, which commenced in March 2016. Envision Mifsud as dispatched – by someone; a UK agency? Italians? – on behalf of the CIA. It would probably be cleaner to say “on behalf of Brennan.”)
Listen once again. The information conveyed to Lynch was that “Russian intelligence reportedly planned to use Page for information and to develop other contacts in the United States, and that they were interested in his affiliation with the campaign.”
That’s not an inference made by the FBI from the information about Page passed on by the NYFO. That’s a packaged assessment from “another member of the Intelligence Community” about Russia’s (then-) current intentions.
I hear Brennan in that information nugget. We know there’s at least one report that Brennan claimed to have troubling information about Trump campaign members and the Russians, from foreign sources, in early 2016.
And this sounds like another nugget – similar to Comey’s theme about the Lynch kompromat – that needed to be planted in the record.
The three threads come together?
There is a great deal more detail to beef up the three threads with. But it’s easier to zoom out from the trees and see the forest if we keep it simple.
The three threads, again, are the USPI data exposure to contractors at the FBI; the Lynch kompromat allegation supposedly from Russian intelligence**; and the odd, one-off brief to Lynch, probably given by Comey and McCabe no later than mid-April 2016, that Carter Page, a cooperating witness of the NYFO who worked for the Trump campaign, was being fingered by the CIA as a target for development by Russian spies.
Now, recall one more event in March 2016. On 14 March, several news outlets reported that CIA Director John Brennan had visited the FSB (successor to the KGB) in Moscow. This highly unusual event didn’t fit any typical or legitimate expectation about a CIA director’s activities, starting with the fact that the FSB is not the CIA’s counterpart in Russia. The SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) is the CIA’s counterpart.
The report of the visit was published on 14 March, and the CIA responded to queries about it shortly thereafter. The actual visit could have occurred the 14th, or as much as 10 days before, based on other events Brennan showed up for in the U.S. in the first half of March.
The CIA spokesman told the media that the visit was about Syria. That made no sense at the time and still doesn’t. The FSB would be the least useful of Russian intelligence agencies to talk to about Syria, and in any case would be unlikely to talk to the CIA director about Syria.
On the other hand, the FSB headquarters would be the location in Russia most likely to host a unique emissary from Washington on a very special mission, of interest to the highest levels of the Vladimir Putin (former KGB and FSB officer) government.
As regards the purpose of Brennan’s visit to Moscow in early-to-mid-March 2016, I’m prepared to cross “discussing Syria” off my list.
* The CNN correction to this September 2017 report, based on the December 2019 DOJ IG report, indicates that Manafort was not put under surveillance in late 2016 by the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. However, the correction does not say, nor does the IG report say, that Manafort was not under separate surveillance before he started his job with the Trump team at the end of March 2016. The original CNN reporting on that earlier period of surveillance, which would have been in force at the time both Page and Manafort were interviewing for the Trump campaign, was not corrected.
** Don’t forget, on the Lynch kompromat, that Amanda Renteria, said to be Lynch’s point of contact with the Hillary campaign, turned out to be a gateway to links with the anti-Kavanaugh onslaught in 2018 (including Dianne Feinstein), and an indirect link through then-Representative Xavier Becerra, D-CA, to the Awan brothers scandal on Capitol Hill.