James A. Gagliano | May 04, 2020 12:45 PM
The time has come to cease affording the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team generous benefit of the doubt. A steady stream of unflattering revelations, beginning with a report by the Justice Department's inspector general into egregious FISA abuses last December, has relentlessly pounded the reputation of my former agency. Now, further irrefutable proof emerges that a small cabal of FBI headquarters decision-makers was hellbent on undoing a presidency.
Horowitz: “We did not reach that conclusion.”
Hawley: “Because I could have sworn — in fact, I know for a fact that I’ve heard that today from this committee. That’s not your conclusion?”
Horowitz: “We have been very careful in the connection with the FISAs for the reasons you mentioned to not reach that conclusion in part, as we’ve talked about earlier, [because of] the alteration of the email, the text messages associated with the individual who did that, and our inability to explain or understand, to get good explanations so that we could understand why this all happened.”
Strzok: “I called Bill and relayed what we discussed. He agrees.”
I know it sounds strange to hear me make such an accusation. I’m the guy who long attempted to thread the needle, accounting for honest human frailties, trusting that mistakes should not always be chalked up to malice or sinister intent. Cautious skepticism was a default mindset that served me well across a quarter century as an FBI investigator. That condition failed me here because one thing is clear.
Michael Flynn got railroaded.
Careful examination of fresh facts related to Flynn pleading guilty to Title 18 U.S. Code § 1001 (essentially, lying to a federal agent) provides an eye-popping and clear-cut case of investigative inconsistencies and partisan political bias. At the request of defense attorney Sidney Powell, who is seeking to have the retired lieutenant general’s plea withdrawn, additional evidence related to the Flynn case has recently been released by the prosecution. According to Flynn’s defense team, some uncovered FBI notes illustrate a concerted effort by former FBI Director James Comey's team to set Flynn up.
The notes in question are handwritten and appear to outline the Crossfire Hurricane team’s objectives for the planned interview with Flynn at the White House, just days after the inauguration of President Trump. They are clearly initialed by then-FBI Assistant Director for the Counterintelligence Division Bill Priestap. I know Bill from our overlapping assignments in the FBI’s New York office. He is an experienced, honorable, and well-respected lawman.
But one passage fairly leaped off the page at me:
“What's our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired? If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ & have them decide. Or, if he initially lies, then we present him [redacted] & he admits it, document for DOJ, & let them decide how to address it.”
It almost appears as if Priestap is attempting to memorialize his own opposition to the Flynn ambush. As in, who would ever chronicle that type of stratagem knowing it might one day be considered Brady material or be subject to a Freedom of Information Act request? It defies credulity. But in Priestap’s defense, he was full-on sailing against the wind.
Then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe essentially called the shots in Crossfire Hurricane. The FBI is charged with enforcing federal law. Nowhere in our identified mission and priorities exists a goal to set a perjury trap or, absent evidence of a prosecutable crime, get someone fired. Why even consider this an objective?
To borrow a line from comedian Jeff Foxworthy: If this doesn’t bother you, you might be a party-over-country partisan.
Since the FBI was already in possession of the transcript of Flynn’s telephone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, what exactly was to be gained by the interview? Nothing except the potential to jam him up and get him removed as national security adviser. It was never going to charge him for violations of the Logan Act or the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Even Robert Mueller’s team could have done so. It passed. These laws are seldom, if ever, enforced. Just ask the lobbyists on K Street.
Even Comey once believed Flynn not to have misrepresented facts to the FBI. The fired former director, who enjoys a cozy relationship with the Washington Post, was awarded “Two Pinocchios” by the paper’s fact-checker after a denial in an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier, who asked him if he had ever “[told] lawmakers that FBI agents didn’t believe former national security adviser Michael Flynn was lying intentionally to investigators?”
Which leads us back to the ubiquitous Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. After McCabe circumvented established channels, forgoing calls to DOJ or the newly emplaced White House counsel or chief of staff, Flynn became a ripe target. After assuring the new national security adviser that he didn’t need an attorney present, McCabe dispatched two agents to the White House.
During a conversation with MSNBC's Nicole Wallace in 2019, Comey smugly recounted this episode of personally sending Strzok and an FBI supervisory special agent, Joe Pientka, to meet with Flynn. According to Comey, this tactic was “something ... I probably wouldn't have done or gotten away with in a more organized investigation — a more organized administration."
So Strzok (famously fired for his partisan text exchanges with Page), along with the FBI official who overruled case personnel and ordered that the Flynn case remain open after recommendations that it be closed for lack of any evidence, had his opportunity.
What happened next infuriates me.
The Flynn FD-302 interview notes appear to have been manipulated by Strzok and Page. Pientka was apparently the note taker. Consistent with FBI protocols, Strzok, as a party to the interview, can certainly discuss recollections with Pientka prior to the final document being approved by both. But somehow, Page, the DOJ attorney who was not present at the interview and was not an FBI agent, was involved in the edits.
Strzok advises Page, in a newly released batch of text exchanges between the two, that he was “trying to not completely rewrite” the FD-302, “so as to save [redacted] voice.” The redacted name is most likely Pientka. Strzok wants the document to appear to be voiced by the other agent. But only after he and Page can craft the words to make Flynn appear guilty of lying to the FBI.
As retired FBI agent Thomas Baker points out in the Wall Street Journal:
“Worse still, the FD-302 that was eventually provided to the court wasn’t that of the agents’ interview of Mr. Flynn. It was instead an FD-302 of an interview of Mr. Strzok, conducted months later, about his recollections of the original interview. Truly bizarre.”
The uncomfortable truth is that the cases focusing on Trump (Crossfire Hurricane) and Hillary Clinton (Midyear Exam) were handled inconsistently. The Clinton investigation (which Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch famously suggested be referred to as a "matter," not an investigation) was not handled aggressively or in keeping with the standards of the apolitical ethos of the FBI.
As former Rep. Trey Gowdy sarcastically described the stark differences between the hyperaggressive tactics employed against Flynn and the ludicrous preconditions that the FBI generously conceded to in order to interview Clinton in 2016:
“She had a medium-sized law firm in the room with her. They gave the questions to her lawyer before they interviewed her, and they most assuredly told her there’s a consequence for lying. None of which they did for Michael Flynn.”
So again, I ask: Why did the same crew of FBI investigators handle these two consequential investigations of political candidates in very different fashions if not for the rather obvious injection of political bias in decision-making?
Many have batted down that suggestion, arguing that Michael Horowitz’s report cleared the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team of partisanship. That is patently false.
Here’s Horowitz in exchange with Sen. Josh Hawley on Dec. 18, 2019:
Hawley: “Was it your conclusion that political bias did not affect any part of the Page investigation, any part of Crossfire Hurricane?”
Horowitz was referring to DOJ attorney Kevin Clinesmith, who materially altered an email to misrepresent information to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. You will also recall the text message whereby he defiantly exhorted, “Viva la Resistance.” Not much political bias to speak of there, right?
The final nail in the coffin of those who pretend political bias did not influence the FBI’s decisions in 2016 and 2017 is a text exchange between Strzok and Page on Feb. 25, 2016, discussing how to approach the Clinton interview:
Page: “One more thing: She might be our next president. The last thing you need us going in there loaded for bear. You think she’s going to remember or care that it was more DOJ than FBI?”
Compare that to Priestap's quote: “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or get him to lie, so we can get him fired?”
The contrast is stunning. No plausible explanation exists here other than rank partisan, political bias.
I’ll say it again: Michael Flynn got railroaded.
James A. Gagliano (@JamesAGagliano) worked in the FBI for 25 years. He is a law enforcement analyst for CNN and an adjunct assistant professor in homeland security and criminal justice at St. John's University. Gagliano is a member of the board of directors of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.