Senators: IG FISA Abuse Report Misled Public About Crossfire Hurricane

Senators: IG FISA Abuse Report Misled Public About Crossfire Hurricane

‘[C]ertain sections of the public version of the report are misleading because they are contradicted by relevant and probative classified information redacted in four footnotes.’
Margot Cleveland
By

Last week’s political trifecta—the Iowa caucus, the State of the Union, and President Trump’s impeachment acquittal—temporarily starved other stories of oxygen. Among those was the news that the inspector general’s report on FISA abuse was misleading and that redacted information contained in four footnotes contradicted sections of the lengthy expose on the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.

Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson dropped that bombshell in a letter delivered to Attorney General William Barr that requested Barr declassify the information hidden in the redacted footnotes. While the declassified version of the Grassley-Johnson letter did not identify the four footnotes at issue, a detailed analysis of the IG report suggests the redacted information concerned Christopher Steele’s sources and potentially the FBI’s purported predication for the launch of Crossfire Hurricane. These conclusions come from a deep-dive into the IG report read in tandem with the Grassley-Johnson letter.

That letter noted that the senators had “reviewed the classified report of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with regard to the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation, and [were] deeply concerned about certain information that remains classified.” Their concern? “That certain sections of the public version of the report are misleading because they are contradicted by relevant and probative classified information redacted in four footnotes.”

The next sentence is the key, as it establishes that the redacted information concerns not just a few details addressed in the IG report, but goes to the heart of the entire Crossfire Hurricane investigation: “This classified information is significant not only because it contradicts key statements in a section of the report, but also because it provides insight essential for an accurate evaluation of the entire investigation.”

We Can Find The Footnotes With Those Breadcrumbs

From these details—that the redacted information contradicts “sections of the public version of the report” and provides insight “for an accurate evaluation of the entire investigation”—it is possible to pinpoint the footnotes and concerns Grassley and Johnson see.

First, the universe of possible classified information the senators seek declassification of is narrow because we know from their letter it appeared in footnotes. While the IG report contains 535 footnotes, only 37 include redacted information: 17, 21, 61, 63, 164, 166, 205, 208, 210, 211, 214, 242, 244, 253, 265, 276, 293, 296, 301, 302, 328, 334, 339, 342, 347, 350, 354, 362, 368, 372, 377, 379, 389, 464, 475, 484, and 526.

Of the redacted footnotes, several can be ruled out because, from the placement and context of the notes and redactions, and from the unredacted details, it appears clear that the blacked-out information merely protects FBI “methods.” Other footnotes are easily deciphered from publicly known information or seem to provide little more information.

But four footnotes stand out: 302, 342, 347, and 350. These provide the most precise fit to Grassley and Johnson’s description of the hidden information and its relevance.

First is footnote 302, which followed Horowitz’s explanation that “Person 1” was the subject of an open FBI counterintelligence investigation at the time the first FISA application was filed against Carter Page. Hidden from the public, though, were details connected to the counterintelligence investigation into Person 1, who is described elsewhere in the IG report as a “key sub-source” to Steele.

Alone footnote 302 might seem insignificant, but three additional details justify an interest in the redacted information. First, the remainder of the relevant paragraph mirrors other sections of the IG report, where information buried in a footnote contradicted what the FBI agents told the IG.

For footnote 302, the IG report text notes that a FISA application would indicate that a source is also the subject of an open case. But in the case of the Page application, an Office of Intelligence attorney told the IG that “he did not recall knowing this information at the time of the first application, even though NYFO opened the case after consulting with and notifying Case Agent 1 and SSA 1 prior to October 12, 2016, nine days before the FISA application was filed.” Case Agent 1 claimed to “not specifically recall” mentioning the case to the OI attorney, but said he may have “in passing.”

This language struck a familiar chord: Elsewhere in the IG report, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s team noted inconsistencies between what they were told and what other evidence established. For instance, the IG report noted they had “also learned about a different CHS [confidential human source] who at one point held a position in the Trump campaign,” but the Crossfire Hurricane team said they decided against tasking this CHS in the investigation and instead minimized contact with him. However, an email uncovered by the IG, the discussion of which was relegated to a footnote, told a different story.

“After careful consideration, the CROSSFIRE HURRICANE team has decided, at this time, it is best to utilize your CHS as a passive listening post regarding any observations [he/she] has of the campaign so far,” the email addressing the CHS’s role read, continuing: “Base[d] on current, on-going operations/developments in the CROSSFIRE HURRICANE investigation, we are not going to directly task or sensitize the CHS at this point in time. We appreciate [your] assistance in this matter and remain interested in any campaign related reporting that you guys may receive from the CHS during normal debriefs.”

The similarity between the paragraph containing footnote 302 and the contradiction just noted, suggests the redacted text, alone or when combined with the other redacted footnotes, exposes an inconsistency in the IG report.

Adding to the Inconsistencies

That likelihood increases further when two other facts are added to the equation: Person 1 plays a prominent role throughout the IG report and several other redacted footnotes—more lengthy ones—also involve Person 1.

In discussing Person 1, the IG report focused on two omissions from the FISA applications that prove significant because Person 1 was Source E in the Steele dossier and served as a “key sub-source” for Steele’s primary sub-source. In fact, “according to Steele and his reports, Report 80 (dated June 20, 2016), Report 95 (dated July 28, 2016), Report 97 (dated July 30, 2016), and Report 102 (dated August 10, 2016) all contain information from Person 1.”

Yet, notwithstanding that Steele had “told members of the Crossfire Hurricane team that Person 1 was a ‘bolster’ and an ‘egoist’ and ‘may engage in some embellishment,’” the FISA applications excluded that detail. The FISA applications also omitted the fact that “the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation on Person 1 a few days before the FISA application was filed.”

While those aspects of the IG report seem straightforward, other passages concerning Person 1 raise more questions than answers. For instance, the IG report noted that FBI Case Agent 1 said “he did not know whether Steele had his own relationship with Person 1.” Another portion of the IG report—again obscured in a footnote—mentioned that “Person 1,” described as “an important Steele election reporting sub-source,” “had been engaging in ‘sustained’ contact with [George] Papadopoulos since at least August 2016.”

Connections Between Dossier and Crossfire Hurricane

Person 1’s connection to Papadopoulos, as well as Steele’s primary sub-source and possibly even Steele, should sound alarms since the FBI has long maintained that the Steele dossier had nothing to do with the launch of Crossfire Hurricane. Rather, the FBI claimed it launched Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016, after receiving information from a “Friendly Foreign Government” (FFG) that Papadopoulos, who then served as a volunteer foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, had told Australian Diplomat Alexander Downer months earlier that the Russians had dirt on Hillary.

But the IG report now reveals a connection between Papadopoulos and Steele in Person 1. And a cryptic passage in the IG report re-read in light of the Grassley-Johnson warning suggests the connection is not merely coincidental.

That passage concerns the FBI officials’ explanation for why they took Steele’s reporting seriously. The officials told the IG’s team that “a significant fact in their consideration of the Steele information for the FISA application was that the Steele reporting on Carter Page appeared to be consistent with the information from the FFG that came from an independent reporting stream.” Those “two reporting streams could have connectivity,” the IG noted, and the FBI should have realized as much by October 2016, based on Person 1’s “sustained contact” with Papadopoulos, according to Horowitz.

This passing aside connects Person 1 not just to Papadopoulos and Steele, but to the FFG—the “two reporting streams” of “intel”!

Yet the IG accepted the FBI’s claim that the FFG information predicated the launch of Crossfire Hurricane, noting that they “did not find information in FBI or Department [Electronic Communications,] emails, or other documents, or through witness testimony, indicating that any information other than the FFG information was relied upon to predicate the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”

Other Reasons to Doubt the IG Report’s Assumption

However, we already know that Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham disagree with the IG’s predication conclusion: Durham released a statement after the IG report hit, stressing that “[b]ased on the evidence collected to date, . . . we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.” We also now know from the Grassley-Johnson letter that “certain sections” of the IG report “are misleading because they are contradicted by relevant and probative classified information” contained in the redacted footnotes.

That the New York Field Office had launched an investigation into Person 1 also raises more questions about the predication because the IG report noted that it had reviewed notes taken “an Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) in the FBI’s New York Field Office (NYFO) of a July 13, [2016], call the ASAC had with (Steele’s) Handling Agent 1 about Report 80.” Handling Agent 1’s supervisor, referred to as “the Legat” in the IG report, had approved passing on that information to the NYFO. Significantly, Person 1 had compiled Report 80, and that call came before the July 31, 2016, launch of Crossfire Hurricane.

As for the Other Three Footnotes in Question

Footnote 302 is but just the first of the four likely footnotes at issue. Footnote 342, which is redacted in full, seems another likely possibility. That footnote comes at the end of a discussion about discrepancies between Steele’s election reporting and statements Steele’s primary sub-source made to the FBI in January 2017.

Significantly, elsewhere the IG report notes that in that January 2017 interview, Steele’s primary sub-source told FBI agents that “he/she did not recall any discussion with Person 1 concerning Wikileaks and there was ‘nothing bad’ about the communications between the Kremlin and the Trump team.” So, footnote 342 again concerns Person 1, whom was being investigated by the New York FBI Field Office, raising the significance of that hidden information.

Footnote 347 seems a likely choice for the third footnote Grassley-Johnson requests declassification of because it also concerns Steele’s sub-sources and obscures lengthy details. From the unredacted information, this sub-source is not Person 1, but like Person 1 was a “key source” for the Trump dossier.

Those facts suggest the footnote concerns Russian Vyacheslav Trubnikov, the former head of the Russian intelligence service, SVR—the analogue to our CIA—and a source Steele identified to multiple people, including Justice Department official Bruce Ohr and the State Department’s Kathleen Kavalec.

If so, the significance of the classified information in Footnote 347 just increased substantially because Trubnikov is also connected to Stefan Halper, one of the confidential human sources the FBI tasked to target Papadopoulos and Page. And because Halper’s first interactions with Page predated the launch of Crossfire Hurricane, it again raises questions about the predication.

Also intriguing is that shortly before sending Barr the letter requesting declassification of the redacted footnotes, Grassley released another letter to James Baker, the director of the Office of Net Assessments for the Department of Defense. In that letter, which ostensibly concerned fiscal oversight, Grassley raised concerns about contracts the DoD had entered into with Halper, including a September 2015 contract in which Halper listed Trubnikov as a consultant and an advisor to a paper the feds were paying Halper to write. This background and the timing of that DoD contract again suggests an issue with the predication.

The Most Concerning Footnote Is the Last

Finally, and most concerning, is Footnote 350. That footnote expands on Steele’s connections to Russians beyond the former MI6’s concerning relationship with Russian Oligarch 1—“the moniker used in the IG report to refer to one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants, the aluminum oligarch Oleg Deripaska—”and his “frequent contacts with representatives for multiple Russian oligarchs.”

The redactions in Footnote 350 raise serious questions concerning what other Russian relationships Steele had and their effects on the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Further, given Steele’s use of Person 1 and the Russian Trubnikov as sub-sources, this footnote could well connect to the details hidden in the prior footnotes.

Without Barr declassifying the information contained in these footnotes, as well as other material, such as the complete FISA applications, we’ll just have to take Grassley and Johnson’s word that the redacted information contradicts other portions of the IG report, making “certain sections of the public version of the report” “misleading.” However, given the accuracy and honesty of Rep. Devin Nunes’ memo on FISA abuse, I’m inclined to trust the Republican senators.

Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.

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