Last week’s guilty plea by Kevin Clinesmith represents the first concrete evidence of movement in U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the Russia collusion hoax. The plea agreement, which was released on Wednesday, suggests another area ripe for inquiry: FBI Agent Stephen Somma’s earlier misrepresentation of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page’s status to those preparing the initial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications to surveil Page.
Clinesmith, who served as an assistant general counsel in the National Security and Cyber Law Branch of the FBI’s Office of General Counsel, admitted in his plea agreement that he had added the phrase “was not a source” to an email from an unidentified governmental agency, most likely the CIA, concerning Page’s “operation contact” with that agency.
Clinesmith admitted that he had altered the email after a Crossfire Hurricane FBI supervisory special agent (SSA) had asked him to determine if Page had ever been a source for that agency, and wanted something “in writing.” Clinesmith forwarded the altered email to the SSA. That cleared the way for the U.S. Department of Justice to obtain the final FISA surveillance order on Page.
Significantly, the plea agreement also noted that “[o]n August 17, 2016, prior to the approval of FISA #1, the [other governmental agency] provided certain members of the Crossfire Hurricane team a memorandum (‘August 17 Memorandum’) indicating that [Page] had been approved as an ‘operational contact’ for the [other governmental agency] from 2008 to 2013 and detailing information that [Page] had provided to that [agency] concerning [Page]’s prior contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers.”
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As the plea agreement highlighted, “the first three FISA applications did not include [Page]’s history or status with the [other governmental agency.]” And they should have, as Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on FISA abuse concluded.
So, while Clinesmith bears responsibility for altering the email concerning Page’s status, thereby clearing the way for the fourth FISA warrant, someone or some-many are responsible for failing to inform the individuals drafting and approving the initial FISA application (and first two renewals) about the details of the August 17, 2016, memo. That fault lies with those “certain members of the Crossfire Hurricane team” who received the August 17, 2016, memo.
About Those ‘Certain Members’
But who were these “certain members”? The IG report identified one as “Case Agent 1,” and about six months ago, The New York Times outed Somma as Case Agent 1. (The IG report also revealed that Case Agent 1 was Stefan Halper’s handler—more on that connection later).
Following Somma’s naming of Case Agent 1, there has been scant mention in the media or in congressional oversight hearings about his role in Spygate. But the reference in Clinesmith’s plea agreement to other members of the Crossfire Hurricane team having received the memorandum detailing Page’s work with the other intelligence agency suggests Somma’s conduct may also be a focus of the Durham probe. While there have been no leaks from Durham’s team to forecast what will come next, revisiting the IG report, in light of Clinesmith’s plea, provides a hint.
One of the 17 substantial errors or omissions IG Horowitz detailed was the omission of “information the FBI had obtained from another U.S. government agency detailing its prior relationship with Page, . . .” In the 400-page report, the IG elaborated on this omission, explaining that “on or about August 17, 2016, in response to the Crossfire Hurricane team’s prior Carter Page name trace request,” “the Crossfire Hurricane team received a memorandum from another U.S. government agency detailing its prior interactions with Page, including that Page had been approved as an ‘operational contact’ for the other agency from 2008 to 2013. The memorandum also detailed the information that Page had provided to the other agency concerning his prior contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers.”
The IG report added it found “no evidence” that, prior to submitting the first FISA application, the Crossfire Hurricane team “requested additional information from the other agency” concerning Page’s relationship. (That did not occur until Page went public about his relationship with the intelligence community and Clinesmith was directed to investigate Page’s claims.)
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Additionally, no one from the Crossfire Hurricane team provided attorneys from the National Security Division—the division that assists with FISA applications—the August 17, 2016, memorandum or informed them of that memorandum’s contents. That information was “highly relevant to the potential FISA application,” according to the IG report. Further, the “FISA request form” Case Agent 1 prepared did not include information received “relating to Page’s prior relationship with that [other intelligence] agency and prior contacts with Russian intelligence officers.”
But it was not merely that no one shared that information with the NSD: The IG report expressly stated that “in late September 2016,” an attorney with the Office of Intelligence who was “assisting on the FISA application,” “explicitly asked” Case Agent 1 “about Page’s prior relationship with this other agency.” And that “Case Agent 1 did not accurately describe the nature and extent of the information the FBI received from the other agency.”
Specifically, in a draft of the FISA application, the OI Attorney asked Case Agent 1 whether there was “any truth to Page’s claim that he has provided information to [another U.S. government agency]—was he considered a source/asset/whatever?” In reply, Case Agent 1 inserted this comment: “He did meet with [the other U.S. government agency], however, it’s dated and I would argue it was/is outside scope, I don’t think we need it in. It was years ago, when he was in Moscow. If you want to keep it, I can get the language from the [August 17 Memorandum] we were provided [by the other U.S. government agency].”
Case Agent 1’s statement was inaccurate in several respects, as the IG report detailed. Specifically:
In response to a question from the OI Attorney in late September 2016 as to whether Carter Page had a current or prior relationship with the other agency, Case Agent 1 stated that Page’s relationship was ‘date’ (when Page lived in Moscow in 2004-2007) and ‘outside scope.’ This representation was contrary to the information the other agency provided in its August 17, 2016 memorandum to the FBI, which stated that Page was approved as an operational contact of the other agency from 2008 to 2013 (after Page had left Moscow). . . . Moreover, rather than being outside the scope of the FISA application, Page’s status with the other agency overlapped in time with some of the interactions between Page and known Russian intelligence officers alleged in the FISA applications. Further, Page provided information to the other agency about his past contacts with a Russian intelligence officers (Intelligence Officer 1), which were among the historical connections to Russian intelligence officers that the FBI relied upon in the first FISSA application (and subsequent renewal applications) to help support probable cause.
So, will Case Agent 1’s inaccurate statements lead to criminal charges, as in the case of Clinesmith? It all depends on intent: Did Case Agent 1 intentionally provide the OI inaccurate information?
Case Agent 1 Says He Can’t Remember
In Horowitz’s report, he noted that the IG’s office asked Case Agent 1 about his knowledge of Page’s relationship with the other agency, but Case Agent 1 claimed not to “recall his state of knowledge in 2016 regarding Page’s history with the other U.S. government agency.” Case Agent 1 told the IG office it was possible he never reviewed the August 17 memorandum, but “he believed that he likely would have reviewed the August 17 Memorandum about Page, . . .”
Case Agent 1 added that “I think I would have reviewed it with the team. I think that it would have been, you know, as we looked at it. It wasn’t just me. But, we, you know, there was a determination made that it was dated.”
The IG office concluded then, that Case Agent 1 “was unable to reconcile for us the information he provided to the OI Attorney with the information in the August 17 Memorandum or FBI case files, explaining to the OIG that he did not recall his state of knowledge in 2016 regarding Page’s history with the other U.S. government agency.”
In the end, the IG report left open the question of Case Agent 1’s intent. While stressing that “Case Agent 1 was primarily responsible for some of the most significant errors and omissions in the FISA applications,” including “providing inaccurate and incomplete information to OI about information provided by another U.S. government agency regarding its past relationship with Page that was highly relevant to the applications,” the IG report noted that it “found no documentary or testimonial evidence that this pattern of errors by Case Agent 1 was intentional.” Yet the IG added that “we also did not find his explanations for so many significant and repeated failures to be satisfactory.”
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Whether U.S. Attorney Durham will find evidence of intent—if any exists—however, is another question. He has access to broader powers than Inspector General Horowitz had, including the power to call witnesses before a grand jury.
Further, we know from Clinesmith’s plea agreement that he has “agree[d] to be personally debriefed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (‘FBI’) regarding the FBI’s review of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (‘FISA’) matters and any information he possesses, direct or indirect, that should be brought to the attention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (‘FISC’).” That debriefing may shed more light on what happened and who knew what, and when.
But even if Durham finds no crime, his investigation may reveal other significant facts. Here, then, we circle back to the curious case of Stefan Halper and Case Agent 1’s seemingly serendipitous role as his handler. As I wrote shortly after The New York Times named Somma as Case Agent 1:
Now that we know Somma’s identity, there’s a surrealness to this entire scene. Case Agent #1 was instantaneously interested in surveilling Page (but not Papadopoulos—that would come later). Yet such surveillance would only be approved the following month when Steele’s reporting finally made its way to the FBI’s D.C. headquarters.
Recall that the IG report maintained “the FBI first received reporting from Christopher Steele regarding alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections in early July 2016,” but the Crossfire Hurricane team “did not become aware of the Steele reporting until September 19, 2016.” But before then, only Steele’s handler and select agents in the New York Field Office knew of Steele’s reporting.
You know where Somma worked before joining the Crossfire Hurricane team in D.C. in August 2016? The FBI New York Field Office, where he served as a special agent for counter-intelligence with a focus on Russia.
The New York Field Office received Steele’s reporting in July when Steele’s handler, FBI Agent Michael Gaeta, on July 28, 2016, sent Steele’s first two memos to the assistant special agent in charge of the New York field office. While the assistant special agent in charge assured Gaeta the reports would be “walled off” from agents in New York field office, might Somma nonetheless have known of Steele’s reporting? Was that why he was so anxious to obtain a FISA warrant on Page?
Other Crossfire Hurricane Members Implicated in Lies
Beyond these questions, there also remains the question of what other members of the Crossfire Hurricane team knew of Page’s relationship with the other agency and who else bore responsibility for the omission in the initial FISA application. Clinesmith’s plea agreement and the IG report suggest other members of the Crossfire Hurricane team besides Case Agent 1 may be implicated.
The plea agreement noted that the August 17, 2016, memorandum on Page was provided to “certain members of the Crossfire Hurricane team,” meaning more than one. Further, the IG report stated that “on September 28, 2016, the OI Attorney emailed Case Agent 1 a draft of the FISA application, copying other members of the Crossfire Hurricane team. As noted above, in a comment in the draft application, the OI Attorney asked ‘do we know if there is any truth to Page’s claim that he has provided information to [another U.S. government agency]—was he considered a source/asset/whatever?”
What we don’t know from the report is who those other members of the team were, although the IG report suggests that Supervisory Special Agent 1 (reportedly Joseph Pientka) also received the August 17 memorandum. That possibility is suggested by the IG’s conclusion that “Case Agent 1 or his supervisor, SSA 1, should have ensured that someone on the team contacted the other agency after receiving the August 17 Memorandum to determine what it meant for Page to have been approved as an operational contact.” How could SSA 1 be expected to ensure someone contacted the other agency about a memorandum they never received?
But could that knowledge have gone higher? Maybe even to the top? Here there’s a significant point from the IG report overlooked by the corporate media circling to protect James Comey: The IG could not determine the extent of Comey’s “knowledge as to each fact that was not shared with OI and not included, or inaccurately stated, in the FISA applications.” “These factors included, among other things, limited recollections, the inability to question Comey about classified material because of his lack of a security clearance, and the absence of meeting minutes that would show the specific details shared with Comey” (emphasis added).
The August 17 memorandum would clearly be classified, and because Comey refused to allow his security clearance to be reinstated, the IG could not show Comey that memorandum and quiz him on whether he had reviewed it, or ask if he had been informed of the contents of the memorandum before signing the FISA application.
Hopefully, Durham shines some light on these and other questions—and soon.