A CIA liaison had clearly told Clinesmith, who helped agents apply for FISA warrants, that Page was in fact a source and had provided the agency information on Russian spies for several years.
Clinesmith knew this inconvenient fact would have undermined the FBI’s rationale for a wiretap — if it were disclosed to the FISA court. So Clinesmith conveyed the altered email along to an FBI agent, convincing him Page was not a source for the CIA.
This agent, in turn, swore out a warrant falsely portraying Page as a possible Russian agent.
In a motion recommending Clinesmith serve as much as six months in prison, Durham asserted the six-year FBI veteran knew the email he forged would be used to support the issuance of a June 2017 FISA warrant to continue eavesdropping on Page, an American citizen, as part of the FBI’s investigation into whether Trump associates were coordinating campaign activities with Russia, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane.”
The FBI accused Page, a former Navy officer, of masterminding a “conspiracy of cooperation” between the campaign and the Kremlin. Special Counsel Robert Mueller later found no such conspiracy and never charged Page with a crime.
Durham strongly suggested Clinesmith — a registered Democrat who sent anti-Trump rants to FBI colleagues after Trump won the 2016 election — had political motivations for suppressing information about the Trump aide’s innocence.
“It is plausible that his strong political views and/or personal dislike of the current president made him more willing to engage in the fraudulent and unethical conduct to which he has pled guilty,” Durham wrote in the sentencing motion.
Clinesmith insists he never intended to deceive anyone.
While he admits altering the email in June 2017 as the FBI was preparing another application to spy on Page, Clinesmith maintains that he was confused about Page’s status as a source and that “exhaustion” from working on the high-tempo Mueller investigation led him to take a regrettable “shortcut,” according to a motion for leniency he and his lawyers filed with the sentencing judge.
Mueller had taken over the Crossfire Hurricane case a month earlier.
Clinesmith further argued in his motion that his misconduct was an “isolated incident” in an otherwise ethical career at the bureau.
But court exhibits filed by Page reveal Clinesmith also withheld knowledge of Page’s longstanding relationship with the CIA from an earlier warrant.
In early April 2017, as Page was being trashed in the media as a traitor following FBI leaks that he was under investigation, he had a lawyer reach out to Clinesmith and inform him that Page had assisted the U.S. government against the Kremlin for many years and couldn’t possibly be a Russian agent.
“Page was not simply an abstract FISA target for Clinesmith,” Page’s attorneys argue in a recent court filing. “Page had interacted directly with Clinesmith several months before Clinesmith altered the email at issue.”
In his April 2017 communications with Clinesmith, Page’s then-lawyer Adam Burke also pleaded with Clinesmith to help publicly clear Page’s name in order to stop death threats he was receiving after media stories depicted him as being under investigation for treason.
Instead of agreeing to help, Clinesmith issued a tacit threat: According to the same court filing, the FBI lawyer advised Burke to keep his client quiet and not defend himself in the media.
‘Clinesmith Chose To Lie’
The FBI attorney even misled Burke by telling him Page was not the subject of investigation and was just a “witness” — even though Clinesmith was aware that Page had been under FBI investigation since August 2016 and under FBI surveillance since October 2016.
Just two months later, Clinesmith intercepted and altered a CIA email that verified what Page had told him directly. He knew that disclosing this exculpatory information would expose the material omission in the previous warrants and require going before the FISA judges and correcting them.
“Faced with this choice, Clinesmith chose to lie,” the court filing asserted.
But Clinesmith didn’t act alone. Durham suggests others played a role in deceiving the FISA court.
The special prosecutor makes a point of noting in court records that in addition to Clinesmith, the CIA had provided “certain members” of the Crossfire Hurricane team a detailed memo verifying that Page was acting on behalf of the CIA and had cooperated with the U.S. government on numerous occasions.
Delivered on Aug. 17, 2016, as the FBI was opening investigations into Page and three other Trump campaign officials and discussing the first application for a FISA warrant on Page, the CIA memo stated that Page had been approved for “operational contact” from 2008 to 2013 and described Page’s interactions with Russian intelligence officers, including some cited nefariously in the FISA applications.
It further informed Crossfire investigators that Page briefed the CIA about these contacts, and the CIA determined that Page was “candid” in his reporting.
The information was highly relevant to the FISA application the team was preparing and went directly to the issue of Page’s loyalty.
His lengthy history as a CIA-handled source undercut the premise that he was a Russian agent. If it were disclosed, it would dramatically weaken the grounds for wiretapping Page as a national security threat.
In fact, it would hurt the predication for the FBI’s entire Russia “collusion” investigation, which hinged on Page’s contacts with Russians.
The memo was entered in the FBI’s system of record known as “Sentinel,” and everybody on the Crossfire team had access to it — including Strzok and McCabe’s legal counsel Page — and yet nobody told the FISA court about it. (Text messages and emails reveal that Strzok and Page were directly involved in the FISA process and worked closely with Clinesmith.)
Instead, they provided inaccurate information to the FISA court that failed to disclose the extent and nature of Page’s prior relationship with the CIA. As a result, the FBI got away with monitoring Page for more than a year, starting in October 2016.
Swecker, a former prosecutor, said the entire Crossfire Hurricane team, not just Clinesmith, had a vested interest in concealing their target’s relationship with the CIA.
He said Durham is likely squeezing Clinesmith for information on Lisa Page (no relation to Carter Page) to get to McCabe. “He worked with Page and he would know if McCabe was pulling the strings behind the scenes.”
Durham notes in his sentencing motion that “instant messages and emails suggest that the SSA [supervisory special agent Joseph Pientka] and case agent [Somma] may have read those [CIA] documents in the past.”
In a Sept. 29, 2016, email, in fact, Somma discussed the contents of the CIA memo with other members of the Crossfire team. There are also text messages between Clinesmith and Strzok discussing Carter Page’s status around the same time.
“It defies credulity that FBI headquarters officials like Peter Strzok could have been unaware of omissions in the FISA application — they would have had to be well up on all the details of the case,” former FBI counterintelligence attorney Mark Wauck said.
Clinesmith claims he doesn’t recall if he read the August memo before assisting the FBI’s efforts to obtain the initial FISA warrant on Page.
He also claims he did not have access to it. But Durham argued that, in fact, the document was available to him and others on the Crossfire team “at the Hoover Building.”
‘Lost’ FBI Files
Investigators have tried to learn more about what Crossfire supervisors knew about Page’s status and history and when they knew it, as well as which high-level officials were involved in approving the FISA requests.
But the certified original documentation that was generated from the early FISA application process is missing from FBI files. The FBI maintains that the documents were inexplicably “lost” and had to be reconstructed.
Former FBI officials say that the removal or possible destruction of these critical documents in such an important case is highly irregular and raises suspicion that those involved in the FISA scandal may have attempted to cover their tracks.
They say it also raises the question of whether the doctoring of evidence in the final FISA application was an isolated incident.
After Trump won the 2016 election in an upset, Clinesmith worried the new Republican president would find out the FBI had monitored his campaign and that fingers would eventually point back to him.
“My goddamned name is all over the legal documents investigating his [Trump’s] staff,” Clinesmith fretted in a Nov. 9, 2016, message to an FBI colleague. “So, who knows if that breaks to him what he [Trump] is going to do?”
Making matters worse, Page’s work for the CIA wasn’t the only government relationship Clinesmith and his Crossfire teammates hid from the FISA court. They also blinded the court to Page’s past cooperation with the FBI itself.
As RealClearInvestigations first reported, the bureau took Page on as a source in 2013 after the CIA vouched for him, and Page helped the FBI put away a Russian agent in 2016. Strzok and Somma were involved in the case.
But neither they nor anyone else on the Crossfire team informed the FISA court about their own relationship with Page as a cooperating witness.
“The truth was well known [among investigators that] Carter Page had for years been a trusted source for both the FBI and the CIA,” Wauck said. “It might be one thing for the FBI to somehow misunderstand and misrepresent Page’s relationship with another government agency, but how [do they] explain away such a misrepresentation of his relationship with the FBI itself?”
Despite some media portrayals of him as a low-level attorney, Clinesmith was actually the primary FBI attorney assigned to the Crossfire investigation.
He first began working for the FBI in 2013 and rose to assistant general counsel in the national security branch of the FBI’s office of general counsel. In that role, he helped FBI agents and supervisors prepare applications for FISA warrants.
In May 2017, he was assigned to Mueller’s team to support investigators there, and even conducted interrogations of suspects. He returned to the FBI in February 2018 shortly after the inspector general provided Mueller with some of his anti-Trump messages.
In July 2018, he was suspended, without pay, for some 14 days for sending the improper messages. Then the IG referred him for investigation for altering the CIA document.
Clinesmith resigned from the bureau in September 2019 before an internal disciplinary process could be completed.
As a central player in both the FBI and Mueller probes, former FBI investigators say, Clinesmith is a valuable witness for Durham and could implicate officials higher up in the “food chain.”
“There’s a lot he could tell Durham’s investigators, if he’s properly motivated to do so,” Wauck said. “Durham’s job is to provide Clinesmith with the proper motivation.”
In exchange for his cooperation, Clinesmith has been free on a personal recognizance bond since August, though his travel has been restricted to Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia.
He is not allowed to go outside the U.S. and must provide Durham’s office an itinerary before traveling to other states. He also must check in with supervisors weekly.
Clinesmith’s lawyers argue he is not a dirty cop and should be spared a prison sentence, especially since he and his wife are expecting their first child.
They’ve asked the judge to also waive any monetary penalty, claiming he can’t afford one because he “has been unemployed for over a year and is barely getting by financially.”
The statute Clinesmith violated calls for a maximum five-year prison term and fines of up to $250,000. In lieu of such punishments, his legal team suggests the judge sentence him to probation and community service.
But some FBI veterans insist Clinesmith should do jail time to deter others from attempting similar corrupt acts and abuses of the government’s secret FISA surveillance program.
“No lawyer who engaged in this type of conduct and confessed to what he did — as Clinesmith did do — should get away with less than a serious jail sentence,” Wauck said — “even if he cooperated [with prosecutors].”
Prosecutors are seeking a reduced term of as much as six months due to the fact he is a first-time offender. The judge deciding Clinesmith’s fate, U.S. District Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg, was appointed to the D.C. bench by President Obama. Boasberg also oversees the FISA court.
Government watchdog groups see a pattern of criminal misconduct at the FBI extending beyond Clinesmith.
“Hopefully, this is just the first of many prosecutions by U.S. Attorney John Durham of those who abused their powers and committed criminal acts in initiating the Russia collusion probe,” National Legal and Policy Center Chairman Peter Flaherty said.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.