By Paul Sperry for RealClearInvestigations
For the past year, defenders of the FBI have consistently downplayed the significance of an FBI staff lawyer falsifying evidence in the government’s investigation into Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia.
They argue Kevin Clinesmith’s crime of altering a CIA document to obscure the fact that former Trump campaign aide Carter Page worked for U.S., not Russian, intelligence was a rare lapse in judgment by an overworked bureaucrat.
It was not, his apologists say, part of any broader conspiracy to conceal exculpatory information from surveillance court judges, who never learned of Page’s history with the CIA before approving FBI warrants to wiretap him as a suspected Russian agent.
But such explanations are challenged by new revelations from court papers filed in the case, which some civil libertarians call the most egregious violation and abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) since it was enacted more than 40 years ago.
The little-noticed documents, which include never-before-seen exhibits, were submitted by Special Counsel John Durham and lawyers for Page, who has been granted time to address the court as a victim when it sentences Clinesmith Jan. 29 as part of a plea agreement.
Page and his attorneys argue that the FBI obtained his electronic communications, both written and oral, based on fraudulent warrants in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. He is suing Clinesmith and the FBI for $75 million in damages.
The court filings reveal, among other things, that Clinesmith knew much earlier than has been reported about Page’s cooperation with the U.S. government, and was not alone in knowing that he had provided information on the Russians to the CIA — or in covering up that knowledge.
Several officials within his tightly compartmentalized chain-of-command — including former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, his counselor Lisa Page and counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok — learned of Page’s role with the CIA before they first sought to wiretap him during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The CIA had confirmed his role two months earlier in an August 2016 memo it sent to the FBI. And Page’s status as a CIA contact had been documented in the FBI’s own electronic files going back to 2009.
Yet they all withheld this critical information attesting to Page’s loyalty from the spy court.
Many of them shared a strong bias against Trump. A registered Democrat, Clinesmith sent a number of anti-Trump political messages over the FBI’s computer system after Trump won in 2016.
He said he was “just devastated” and lamented “the systematic disassembly of the progress we made over the last 8 years. ACA [Affordable Care Act] is gone. Who knows if the rhetoric about deporting people, walls, and crap is true. I honestly feel like there is going to be a lot more gun issues, too, the crazies won finally. This is the tea party on steroids. … We have to fight this again. Also Pence is stupid.”
Weeks later, the Trump investigator added, “Viva le resistance,” signaling he planned to join the Left’s resistance movement against Trump.
Clinesmith’s views were safe within his chain of command. As Trump gained in the polls in August 2016, Strzok promised a worried Page “we’ll stop” him from becoming president, according to their text messages.
A week later, during a meeting in McCabe’s office, Strzok and Page discussed devising an “insurance policy” in the event Trump won.
“OMG I am so depressed,” Strzok wrote to Page after Trump’s election victory. “I don’t know if I can eat. I am very nauseous,” Page replied.
Since last summer, when Clinesmith pleaded guilty, Durham has narrowed his investigation to focus on the activities of the so-called Crossfire Hurricane team, which included top FBI officials who worked closely with Clinesmith on the Page wiretaps, and on whether the FBI launched the entire investigation of the Trump campaign without legal predication, according to former Attorney General William Barr.
As part of his plea deal, Clinesmith agreed to “be personally debriefed” about “FISA matters and any information he possesses.”
Timeline: Repeatedly Ignoring Evidence Carter Page No Traitor Paul Sperry, RCI
Former FBI officials say it’s unlikely Clinesmith would have operated on his own without higher-ups knowing about his June 2017 misrepresentations about Page’s prior work for the CIA.
They note that the criminal suppression of that exculpatory information occurred during a supercharged atmosphere at FBI headquarters.
Just weeks earlier, President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, and Comey’s deputy was secretly discussing desperate measures to strike back at the president, including covertly recording him in the Oval Office and removing him from power under the 25th Amendment.
Keeping one of Trump’s advisers under surveillance became a bureau priority.
Some observers speculate that McCabe is a key target in Durham’s ongoing investigation, which was initially based in Connecticut, where Durham serves as U.S. attorney, but is now operating primarily out of Washington.
They point out that McCabe hand-picked Clinesmith, barely in his 30s, for his investigative team and gave him unusual authority over the highly sensitive case, compartmentalizing him within his office and making him the point man on all four FISA warrant requests.
Clinesmith was involved from the start, and McCabe gave his efforts to surveil Page a high-level push through the Justice Department, where it initially met with resistance from skeptical lawyers who asked questions about Page’s prior relationship with the CIA.
Moreover, McCabe was the FBI official who signed the FISA application tainted by Clinesmith’s crime.
It was McCabe who certified that the controversial June 2017 application to renew the wiretap on Page was accurate, even though it omitted what the CIA had told Clinesmith and others at the FBI — that Page had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government in engaging with certain Russians.
The application Clinesmith and McCabe shepherded through misled the court by citing his contacts with those Russians as evidence he was working on behalf of Moscow, not Washington, and a key reason the FBI claimed it was suspicious of him.
“It’s a very brazen move doctoring email from another agency; it’s unlikely Clinesmith would have been so brazen if he didn’t know he had protection from above,” said former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker, who served in the FBI’s legal counsel division for two years and is familiar with the role of attorneys like Clinesmith in such national security investigations. “It makes perfect sense from Clinesmith’s guilty plea that McCabe is in legal jeopardy.”
Added Swecker, “It was my belief that McCabe skated on the false statements indictment because Durham had bigger and better things to run against him.”
Prosecutors last year abandoned efforts to pursue criminal charges against McCabe for repeatedly lying to federal investigators about his role in leaking sensitive information to the media during the 2016 election.
McCabe was fired in 2018 and now works as a paid CNN commentator.
Attempts to contact McCabe through his attorney were unsuccessful. But in recent Senate testimony, he said he would not have signed off on the Carter Page warrant had he known it contained inaccurate information.
Asked if he shared blame for the fraudulent application, he said, “I think that we are all responsible for the work that went into that FISA.”
In August, Clinesmith pleaded guilty to a single felony count of intentionally making a false statement by doctoring a CIA email to make it appear Page had not assisted the agency. He added the words “not a ‘source’” to the document.
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