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Once-secret FBI informant reports reveal wider-ranging operation to spy on Trump campaign

Goal was to find "anyone" inside GOP campaign tied to Russia who could be get dirt "damaging" to Clinton, newly declassified memos reveal.

Updated: February 25, 2021 - 10:15am

Once-secret reports show the FBI effort to spy on the Trump campaign was far wider than previously disclosed, as agents directed an undercover informant to make secret recordings, pressed for intelligence on numerous GOP figures, and sought to find "anyone in the Trump campaign" with ties to Russia who could acquire dirt "damaging to Hillary Clinton."

The now-declassified operational handling reports for FBI confidential human source Stefan Halper — codenamed "Mitch" — provide an unprecedented window both into the tactics used by the bureau to probe the Trump campaign and the wide dragnet that was cast to target numerous high-level officials inside the GOP campaign just weeks before Americans chose their next president in the November 2016 election.

 Among the revelations, the memos make clear that:

  • Almost immediately after the FBI opened a Russia collusion probe on July 31, 2016 narrowly focused on the foreign lobbying of a single Trump campaign aide named George Papadopoulos, agents pressed Halper for information on more than a half dozen other figures, including future Attorney General Jeff Sessions, foreign policy adviser Sam Clovis, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, economic adviser Peter Navarro, future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and campaign adviser Carter Page.
  • Halper provided significant exculpatory evidence to the FBI — including transcripts of conversations he recorded of targeted Trump advisers providing statements of innocence — that was never disclosed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that approved a year of surveillance targeting the Trump campaign, and specifically Page.
  • While current FBI Director Chris Wray has insisted the bureau did not engage in spying on the Trump campaign, Halper's taskings include many of the tradecraft tactics of espionage, including the creation of a fake cover story (he wanted a job at the Trump campaign), secret recordings, providing background on targets, suggested questions to ask and even contact information for potential targets.

But the memos' most explosive revelations are the sheer breadth of the FBI's insufficiently predicated dragnet targeting the Trump campaign, and the agents' clearly stated purpose of thwarting any Trump campaign effort to get dirt from Russia that could hurt his Democratic rival.

"The Crossfire Hurricane investigative team is attempting to determine if anyone in the Trump campaign is in a position to have received information either directly or indirectly from the Russian Federation regarding the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton," one of the early FBI electronic communications (ECs) from Halper's undercover work stated.

You can read the memos here.

Ordinarily, FBI counterintelligence investigations that target Americans legally must be predicated on specific allegations that narrowly focus the bureau's spy powers on limited targets to avoid unnecessary infringement of privacy and civil liberties. But the Halper documents reveal a large, unfocused FBI search with little substantiation of alleged wrongdoing, and significant evidence that undermined the core allegations, experts told Just the News.

Former FBI Assistant Director for Intelligence Kevin Brock said the information about Papadopoulos' foreign lobbying that the bureau used to open the Russia collusion probe failed to meet the bureau's own legal standards to justify the larger dragnet that encompassed Page and many other Trump officials.

"Normally when the FBI opens an investigation on a U.S. citizen, it has specific facts justifying an investigation of that person," explained Brock, who led the implementation of many of the bureau's current rules for informants and intelligence gathering. "But here what the ECs are saying is they don't know who is involved and they are just conjecturing that someone in the Trump campaign might be in a position to receive help from Russia. You just can't open a full field investigation on conjecture.

"If you look at the FBI's ECs dispassionately, there is no clearly predicated basis for investigation for U.S. citizens, so it looks instead like subterfuge to justify an open-ended inquiry.  The only sane, logical explanation why the Crossfire Hurricane team would doggedly perpetuate such an unfounded investigation is political bias,” Brock added.

Brock's comments echo the words of one of the lead FBI agents in the Russia case, William Barnett, who last year told the Justice Department in a lengthy interview that there was never any credible evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and that the investigation only persisted because there was a "get Trump" attitude among investigators.

"BARNETT and others joked about how the investigation into collusion could be made into a game, which they referred to as 'Collusion Clue,'" the DOJ summary of Barnett's interview read. "In the hypothetical game, investigators are able to choose any character conducting any activity in any location and pair this individual with another character and interpret it as evidence of collusion."

You can read Barnett's full memo here.

Just the News obtained the new informant documents — previously classified at the "secret" level — after Trump ordered hundreds of Russia collusion probe documents declassified during his final 24 hours in office last month. The informant documents chronicle the efforts by the FBI to direct Halper as a confidential human source from August 2016 through early 2017.

Halper did not return a call seeking comment on one of the  phones he used when he was working for the FBI. A woman who answered said she would pass along a message. Halper also did not reply to messages seeking comment sent to private and work email addresses. The FBI national press office in Washington declined comment.

Halper, a respected American academic who frequented Europe, wrote studies for the Pentagon and roamed freely among the GOP establishment for decades, is the less famous of the two primary informants the bureau used in the Crossfire Hurricane operation that investigated the now-debunked allegations of Trump-Russia collusion.

The other informant, the former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele, wrote the infamous dossier that became the basis for the FBI to seek a warrant to spy on Page in October 2016, just two months after opening the probe on the separate Papadopoulos allegations.

The memos show that the FBI instructed Halper in August 2016 not to focus on Papadopoulos first, but rather on Page, whom the FBI described as an "opportune target." Papadopoulos was given the code name Crossfire Typhoon (CT), while Page was given the codename Crossfire Dragon (CD) in the memos.

"The main goal of the operation is to have CD admit that he has direct knowledge of and is either helping coordinate or assisting the RF [Russian Federation] conduct an active measure campaign with the 'Trump Team,'" stated an Aug. 24, 2016 report detailing the FBI's interactions with Halper that week.

If the Page operation failed, the FBI "team would then change its posture and move forward with an operation against CROSSFIRE TYPHOON," the memos stated.

The memos showed Halper followed FBI instruction and helped the FBI make recordings that clearly captured Page — unaware he was talking to an FBI informant — denying the key allegations against him. On the recordings Page said that he had not met with two sanctioned Russians as Steele had alleged, that he had not played a role in modifying the RNC platform to help Russia, and that he was not involved with or aware of any effort by the Trump campaign to work with Russia to hack Clinton's emails.

"You know, I've made clear in a lot of ... subsequent discussions/interviews that I've been part of that I know nothing about it," Page was captured saying in one recorded conversation with Halper included in the memos. "I know nothing about that on a personal level. You know, no one's ever said one word to me."

Those recordings — clear evidence of potential innocence — were never properly shared by the FBI with the FISA court that kept approving surveillance warrants targeting Page, the Justice Department inspector general has reported.

The memos show Halper occasionally brought information to the FBI that called into question the Russia collusion theory.

For instance, he reported that when overseas in July 2016, Page had been "very guarded" and made clear the opinions he expressed on Russia policy were his own, and not the Trump campaign's.

And when the FBI pressed for any information on whether Sessions, then a U.S. senator and senior adviser to the Trump campaign, might be involved in Russian collusion, Halper threw shade at the notion. "The CHS does not know Sessions but opined that Sessions is a conservative who would not be friendly to Russia," an Aug. 15, 2016 bureau report concluded.

The memos make clear that by October 2016, the FBI had been able to "conduct several operations utilizing the CHS against other targets of the CH [Crossfire Hurricane] investigation." The memos at various points mention several prominent names that the FBI sought information on, including Trump's first national security adviser Flynn, his campaign chairman Manafort, his economic adviser Peter Navarro and his foreign policy adviser Sam Clovis.

"The interviewing team gave the CHS an email from Sam Clovis which it had obtained via open source," one memo said, detailing instructions given to Halper. "The team instructed the CHS to reach out directly to Clovis in the hope of setting up a meeting."

When the FBI suggested Halper try to meet Manafort in August 2016, the informant suggested the campaign chairman might be too busy, the memos show.

Over the years, current FBI Director Chris Wray and fired former Director James Comey have suggested the FBI's activities in the Russia probe were not spying. But the Halper memos clearly show the FBI employed many of the tradecraft tools of espionage, from recording and monitoring Halper's conversations with Trump figures to providing him questions, background information and even a believable cover story to justify his frequent contacts inside the campaign: he was seeking a job on team Trump.

"As stated previously, the CHS stated that s/he had no intention of joining the campaign but the CHS had not conveyed that to anyone related to the Trump campaign," an Aug. 15, 2016 debriefing memos states. "The CHS was willing to assist with the ongoing investigation and to not notify the Trump campaign about the CHS's decision not to join."

At times, the FBI also provided information to Halper to assist his work, including when he was seeking to question Page.

"Given the Trump campaign's desire to hire the CHS as an advisor, the CHS is in a perfect position to ask CD direct questions about the Trump campaign's alleged ties to RF," one memo noted. "The team provided the CHS with several open source articles about the Trump campaign."

Brock, the former FBI executive, said Wray's and Comey's effort to avoid using the word spying in the Russia case were simply semantics. 

“What they are doing is using preferred definitions,” he said. “When we employ the investigative techniques used against Carter Page to break the laws of another country and steal their secrets, it’s okay to call it spying.  When we use those same techniques against a U.S. citizen, it’s called an investigation."