In bringing first Russiagate charge, Durham hints at other crimes
Prosecutor unveils evidence FBI knew before first FISA warrant in 2016 that Carter Page worked with CIA, wasn't a Russia stooge, and didn't inform court.
Spygate, once derided by media and political elites as a fringe conspiracy theory, is now fact thanks to a court filing that confirms an ex-FBI lawyer who disliked President Trump falsified evidence that was used to keep surveillance against Trump associates going.
U.S. Attorney John Durham filed the felony charge Friday against Kevin Clinesmith, and the ex-FBI assistant general counsel is expected to plead guilty soon and cooperate with the ongoing investigation of the Russia investigators.
That alone is significant, since Clinesmith was witness to other controversial moments in the failed Trump-Russia collusion probe, including an operation to spy on the future president during a counterintelligence briefing in summer 2016.
But within the four-plus page criminal information filed in U.S. District Court, Durham also laid out evidence of an additional crime that could be prosecuted in the coming weeks.
The court filing notes that Clinesmith "willfully and knowingly" altered a document in June 2017 to falsely claim that Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — one of the main targets of the Russia collusion probe and identified in the court document as "Individual #1" — was not a source for the CIA, identified in the court documents as "Other Government Agency" or "OGA." In reality, Page was a CIA asset.
The filing says Clinesmith's misdeed caused the FBI to mislead the Justice Department and the FISA court when filing an application for the last of four surveillance warrants that targeted Page for over a year.
But Durham also reveals in the filing that the FBI Crossfire Hurricane team — led by since-fired Agent Peter Strzok — had already been told of Page's relationship with the CIA all the way back in August 2016 and failed to tell the FISA court that essential information about Page before the three prior FISA warrants were approved.
Such a failure is known as a material omission because the FBI was claiming they believed Page was an agent of Russia when in fact he was an asset of the U.S. government helping to inform on Russian intelligence targets. In other words, had the FBI not omitted the truth, the judges would have known before they approved even the first FISA warrant that Page was a CIA-handled source, not a Russian stooge.
Here's how Durham worded the account:
"On Aug 17, 2016, prior to the approval of FISA #1, the OGA (CIA) provided certain members of the Crossfire Hurricane team a memorandum indicating that Individual #1 (Page) had been approved as an operational contact for the OGA (CIA) from 2008 to 2013 and detailing information that Individual #1 (Page) had provided to the OGA (CIA) concerning Individual #1's prior contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers. The first three FISA applications did not include Individual #1's history or status with the OGA (CIA)."
Several experts said Durham's inclusion of the earlier notification signals he has concerns others may also have been involved in deceiving the court.
"It's more than an oversight. Whether the omission was purposeful or not, it is a fraud on the court," said Kevin Brock, the FBI's former assistant director for intelligence and the man who created many of the procedures the bureau employs with confidential human sources in national security investigations.
"At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, I think it is clear that Durham is positioning a deeper dive into this issue of FISA application abuse," Brock added.
Earlier inspector general reports also revealed that Clinesmith engaged in the exchange of some anti-Trump text messages, adding to the portrait of a lawyer who doctored a document.
In one instance the day after Trump won, Clinesmith texted this anti-Trump, anti-Mike Pence screed: "The crazies won finally. This is the tea party on steroids. And the GOP is going to be lost, they have to deal with an incumbent in 4 years. We have to fight this again. Also Pence is stupid," he wrote in a text quoted by the inspector general.
A lawyer for Clinesmith on Friday offered an apology for his client's action ahead of his guilty plea, but suggested Clinesmith didn't intend to mislead the court when he altered the CIA document.
Brock dismissed that argument.
"The fact that the bureau was advised even before the first application that Carter Page was a source of the CIA and chose not to include it for the first three applications undercuts that argument," the retired FBI executive said. "It stretches credulity that Clinesmith would claim he believed he was providing accurate information. They already knew it was inaccurate."
Brock isn't alone in the view that Durham has tipped his hand to future prosecutions.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose work in Congress unraveled many of the abuses in the FBI Russia probe, noted that Clinesmith was also identified in FBI documents as being involved in an August 2016 episode in which the FBI inserted an agent into one of Trump's first counterintelligence briefings to spy on the future president.
"Those who orchestrated, enabled and amplified the bogus Russia collusion saga must face a reckoning, and those who violated the law must face justice," Grassley said. "Thanks to recent declassifications, we now know that the same FBI lawyer who doctored evidence to push for spying authority on Trump's campaign was also intimately involved in plans to co-opt intel briefings to spy on Trump himself. Today, he is being held to account."
Grassley urged Durham to keep pressing ahead "for the good of our nation."
"His team must continue to provide transparency into this multi-year, multimillion-dollar debacle," the veteran senator said.