Ex-FBI lawyer to plead guilty in deal with prosecutors reviewing Russia probe
A former FBI attorney plans on pleading guilty to making a false statement in the first legal salvo fired by a federal prosecutor investigating the origins of the U.S. probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The felony charge, which was filed Friday in Washington’s federal court, is part of a plea deal between the prosecutor, John Durham, and Kevin Clinesmith, 38, an attorney who used to work in the FBI’s office of general counsel.
Under the deal, Clinesmith will admit that he altered the meaning of an email that agents relied upon in seeking to renew court-approved surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor who was suspected of being a Russian agent. Page was never charged with any crime.
“Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email,” Clinesmith’s lawyer, Justin Shur, said in a statement. “It was never his intent to mislead the court or his colleagues as he believed the information he relayed was accurate. But Kevin understands what he did was wrong and accepts responsibility.”
Clinesmith’s misconduct was disclosed in a report released in December by the Justice Department’s inspector general that sharply criticized how the FBI handled its secret surveillance on Page in 2016 and 2017. Even so, the felony charge is certain to be championed by President Trump and his political allies as they seek to call attention to the conduct of federal law enforcement and intelligence officials who investigated possible collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow.
By citing disparaging text messages from Clinesmith and other FBI employees, the president has accused law enforcement officials of plotting a coup against him. Court documents laying out the allegations against Clinesmith do not allege or reveal such a conspiracy.
Clinesmith’s wrongdoing affects only a narrow aspect of the Russia investigation — the surveillance of Page. It does not call into question the decision to start the probe, nor the gathering of intelligence by U.S. spies that determined that Moscow wanted to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump and Atty. Gen. William Barr have said the investigation was improper and worse, but the inspector general did not find any evidence that it was politically motivated.
The charge came in a “criminal information,” a court document that can only be filed with the defendant’s consent and signals a plea deal has been reached. The criminal case is the first brought by Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut who was tapped last year by Barr to investigate how the FBI and intelligence agencies investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign and Moscow’s potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
The attorney general ordered the Durham investigation shortly after releasing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report in April 2019 that found that Trump’s aides welcomed Russian offers of help during the race but failed to find evidence of a criminal conspiracy involving Moscow and Trump’s campaign and associates.
Barr has been a sharp critic of the Mueller investigation and earlier FBI probe into Russia’s interference, calling it “abhorrent” and a “grave injustice.” In a news conference unveiling the Mueller report, Barr defended Trump from accusations of obstruction of justice by saying the president was entitled to feel frustrated and angry by the probe.
Trump has cheered on Barr’s efforts to unravel the Russia investigation, and the president told Fox Business on Thursday that he wouldn’t be satisfied if only “lower guys” were charged.
“I hope they’re not going to be politically correct and say, well you know, we want to go, just get — let’s get the lower guys that forged the documents going into FISA. Let’s just get a couple of the lower guys,” Trump said. He added, “Bill Barr can go down as the greatest attorney general in the history of our country, or he can go down as just an average guy.”
In an interview Thursday night with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Barr had hinted that Durham would be taking action Friday. “Tomorrow there will be a development in the case,” Barr said. “You know, it’s not an earth-shattering development but it is an indication that things are moving along at the proper pace.”
Barr has said that former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Obama are not targets of the probe and expects more information to be disclosed by Durham before election day. Democrats have expressed concerns that such revelations could violate Justice Department rules barring disclosure of information that could influence a coming election.
“I have said there are going to be developments, significant developments, before the election,” Barr told Hannity. “But we’re not doing this on the election schedule. We’re aware of the election. We’re not going to do anything inappropriate before the election.”
In court papers, Durham alleged that Clinesmith was helping FBI agents in 2017 prepare to renew a warrant application under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to spy on Page, whom the FBI suspected of being a Russian agent. An FBI agent asked Clinesmith to check with an unidentified intelligence agency — the CIA, according to people familiar with the matter — to see if that was true that Page had been an agency source; the former Trump advisor had just made such a claim in a media interview.
The FBI would have to disclose such a relationship in any warrant application because it would be considered exculpatory.
Clinesmith received an email from a liaison at the CIA that referenced an earlier memo from the spy agency that noted “Page had been approved as an operational contact” from 2008 to 2013, the court papers allege. The CIA memo disclosed information that Page had provided the agency about his interactions with Russian intelligence officers.
Clinesmith, however, told an FBI agent on June 17, 2017, in an instant message that Page was never a source. Later that day, he forwarded the liaison’s email to the FBI agent, altering it to falsely state that Page was “not a source” for the CIA.
The court papers did not go beyond what Justice Department Inspector Gen. Michael Horowitz disclosed about Clinesmith’s misconduct in his December report examining the origins of the Russia probe. Clinesmith’s actions were among the 17 errors and omissions uncovered by Horowitz in how FBI agents and government lawyers in obtaining warrants to spy on Page from the FISA court.
In a conclusion sharply at odds with Barr’s assessment of the investigation’s origin, however, Horowitz determined the FBI had proper justification to launch the probe. His team also uncovered no evidence that politics influenced the inquiry despite reviewing over 1 million pages of records and interviewing more than 100 current and former officials.
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