Many observers were surprised, and some disappointed, that recently departed Attorney General William Barr exonerated the CIA in the criminally abusive campaign against candidate and later President Donald Trump. In fact, Barr has prevented James Comey’s FBI team from finger-pointing its way out of stomach-turning criminal wrongdoing.
The belief that the CIA was strongly implicated in abusive spying on Americans in Trump’s campaign flowed naturally from the facts published, which of course did not include all pertinent classified information. But possible CIA implication, while comforting to those who decried Director John Brennan’s strident partisanship, may have given the smugly dissembling James Comey a way to escape.
Let’s look at one example: the setup of lowly Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in Spring 2016, through approaches by “the Professor” Joseph Mifsud. We now know that Hillary Clinton had long planned a “Russian disinformation” claim against Trump, to counter ugly allegations likely to arise about Clinton’s criminality should Russia choose to release emails hacked from her server. Although corrupt dealings between foreign actors and the Clinton Foundation have been widely suspected, truly damning emails were never released, demonstrating the wise restraint of a hostile foreign power seeking to gain leverage on a person sure to be elected.
But as a prophylactic, Mifsud had sought out Papadopoulos in late March 2016, accompanied by the beautiful “Putin’s niece.” “Setup” communications about a possible Trump meeting with Putin, brokered by the supposedly Russian-connected Mifsud, were seeds planted in the event Russian collusion claims were necessary to fend off the feared Russian release of inculpatory emails.
Soon attention did begin to focus on troublesome emails, as the Democratic National Committee learned around April 22-24 that its emails had been hacked, likely by Russia. The emails were only of minor consequence, but their later release might prove only the first shoe to drop on Clinton, so a Russian excuse was becoming more vital.
On April 26, Mifsud breathlessly told Papadopoulos that he had just returned from Russia, and that Russia had emails damaging to Clinton. Papadopoulos was outside the United States and fair game for surveillance, but unfortunately for the plotters, he told no one in the campaign of the emails. They would need him to tell someone, in order to give a pretext for formally investigating the Trump campaign.
Enter Alexander Downer, an Australian diplomat and contractor for Hakluyt, a private British intelligence agency. Downer on May 10 tried to elicit from Papadopoulos his knowledge of the hacked Russian emails, but got only sketchy confirmation.
On April 24, Mary Jacoby, wife of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, had visited the White House to procure, it appears, DNC approval to spend millions on the Steele dossier and other “Russian collusion” diversions. Mifsud’s contemporaneous communication with Papadopoulos, of course, suggests coordination.
On July 26, 2016, after the July 22 massive dump of DNC emails by WikiLeaks, Downer suddenly felt compelled to rush to the U.S. embassy with his embroidered tale via Papadopoulos of hacked Russian emails. It was on this weak, absurdly pretextual basis, that the counterintelligence “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation was opened on July 31, so soon after Downer’s message that perhaps the FBI had been eagerly awaiting this excuse to surveil.
Of course, the strength of this thin reed of evidence was based on Mifsud’s status as a “Russian (connected)” professor. Anyone reading the Mueller report or public filings in U.S. v. Papadopoulos would know this Russian connection to be crucial. Intriguingly, Andrew McCabe’s FBI team likely fed this canard to Mueller’s.
But was Mifsud as a Russian asset the basis for three years of investigation? It is now clear that Mifsud was a plant of Western intelligence. Mifsud’s close friend and co-professor at Link University was none other than Clare Smith, the highest U.K. security “vetting” official. Once Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham traveled to Rome to listen to Mifsud’s recorded deposition, the Durham investigation was announced as a criminal probe. In short, one infers, Mifsud likely fingered Western intelligence as his principal, not Russia.
Since the CIA has a solely foreign intelligence mission, a logical conclusion was that John Brennan’s CIA had been behind this Mifsud ruse and conned the FBI into opening “Crossfire Hurricane.”
This tentative conclusion was bolstered by Comey’s post-Mueller report Washington Post op-ed, in which he justified his investigation on a “Russian agent,” presumably Mifsud. So, it appeared that Comey, to escape prosecution, would be claiming that he was deceived by the CIA as to Mifsud’s alleged Russian provenance.
Adding fuel to the CIA fire was the presence of both Christopher Steele (ex-MI6) and Nellie Ohr, (a Russian-speaking CIA open-source contractor) on the Fusion GPS team, looking suspiciously like CIA cutouts.
But not so fast. Steele was briefed in February 2016 as an FBI informant. In the spring of 2016, Nellie Ohr’s husband, Bruce, who had worked with Steele on a FIFA prosecution earlier, was unsuccessfully seeking through the FBI a FISA warrant on Trump Tower servers. The FBI had been, it now appeared, on John Brennan’s “interagency” group for Trump-Russia issues since December 2015.
Alexander Downer’s private employer Hakluyt also housed Stefan Halper, a later acknowledged confidential informant of the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane.” In December 2015, Lisa Page, McCabe’s lawyer and lover of the FBI’s Peter Strzok, had texted him, inquiring about his getting approval for “oconus lures,” meaning agents used to lure targets outside the contiguous United States (“oconus”) so, presumably, they could be spied upon. Fortunately for the FBI, Papadopoulos had voluntarily traveled to London and into its web of spying.
The next nail in the Comey coffin was the Horowitz report. While barely recognizing the legitimacy of the opening of Crossfire Hurricane, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report was damning of the FBI, categorizing seeming perjury, obstruction, and deception of the FISA court in at least 17 separate instances.
Who within the FBI was responsible? Ever since Hillary Clinton’s possible criminal woes surfaced, James Comey went to unusual lengths to keep all of her investigations closely held in a tightly knit headquarters (“HQ”) cabal. Pushing out experienced HQ agents to retirement or other posts, Comey surrounded himself with selected, like-minded agents.
The meteoric rise of Andrew McCabe from the Washington field office to headquarters and then quickly to Number Two, was unprecedented. Normally, as in Watergate, the Washington field office would be deeply entrenched in any Washington-based investigation, with Headquarters involvement as necessary. But all the Clinton and Trump investigations were kept in Headquarters, with Field Office agents tasked to perform non-sensitive tasks without input into confidential discussions.
Some may have wondered why all investigations affecting political actors appear to have been handled by the same few agents—Comey, McCabe, Strzok. To be sure, as Horowitz describes, one unnamed case agent and one unnamed supervising special agent were also part of Comey’s tight HQ squad, but why were these same five individuals—getting legal advice from a handpicked sixth, Lisa Page—subordinated, unusually, to McCabe?
The transparent motive of the team to whitewash Hillary Clinton’s obvious misdeeds (e.g., giving immunity without honest cooperation to those bludgeoning the subpoenaed Clinton server) was proven, ironically, by the delayed “re-opening” of the Clinton classified information investigation, until several days before the election, on October 28, 2016. Many analysts saw this exquisitely timed eruption as causing Clinton’s defeat, for which Comey understandably was blamed.
This late disclosure was caused by McCabe’s sitting silently for a month on a massive dump of Clinton emails found on the laptop of disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner, a clear attempted coverup. Comey was finally forced to admit to the new emails by the probability of devastating leaks from the FBI’s New York field office, manned by honest agents outside Comey’s tight HQ circle. So, yes, McCabe’s attempted obstruction speaks volume about how Comey’s group was operating.
But the present problem for Comey is this tightly formed group, meant as a secure structure for partisan abuse. With the COVID excuse, Durham’s investigation has been delayed in its efforts to see who takes the fall, and who passes the trash to the next person. But there is, without question, criminality somewhere in the tight group—depending on who talks, much the way Comey describes Mafia dynamics.
Will McCabe take the fall for Comey, or tell Durham that he told Comey all about Mifsud? Or about the clear evidence that Steele was simply passing on Russian disinformation? The path to the FBI is clear now that Barr has taken Brennan and the CIA out of the line of Durham’s fire. A tight shot pattern, indeed, may get all culprits at once.
So, Barr’s statement clearing the CIA, rather than disappointing, is in fact hopeful for all who treasure equal justice for both sides of the political fence.