Leak Of Crossfire Hurricane Agent’s Identity To The NYT Suggests More To Come

Leak Of Crossfire Hurricane Agent’s Identity To The NYT Suggests More To Come

The leak of Stephen Somma’s identity to the pair of favored New York Times journalists looks like an attempt to preempt, and thereby soften, damaging information soon to come.
Margot Cleveland
By

Last week, The New York Times outed Crossfire Hurricane Case Agent #1 as Stephen Somma. Crossfire Hurricane is the Obama administration’s secret surveillance of the Trump campaign on the pretext of collusion with Russia that was later disproven by a two-year special counsel probe.

In a story headlined “National Security Wiretap System Was Long Plagued by Risk of Errors,” SpyGate denier Charlie Savage and his co-author, Adam Goldman, portrayed the egregious Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse targeting former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page as typical of the missteps made in other, less politically sensitive FISA court cases.

Of course, as Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s 400-plus page report detailed, the FISA abuse in the Trump campaign was very unusual and very excessive—and the formerly unnamed Case Agent #1 played a large part in the plot to target the Trump campaign.

As such, the leak of Somma’s identity to the pair of favored New York Times journalists looks like an attempt to preempt, and thereby soften, damaging information soon to come. We saw a very similar tactic when the Times ran an article shortly before Horowitz’s report dropped that revealed government lawyer “Kevin Clinesmith, altered an email that officials used to prepare to seek court approval to renew the wiretap.”

The Times’ reveal of Case Agent #1’s identity will likely prove to be a tell that the spotlight will soon shine on Somma. With this in mind, a re-read of the IG report unearths several details now carry new significance.

Somma Immediately Suggested FISA Spying

“Almost immediately after opening the Page, Papadopoulos, and Manafort investigations on August 10, the case agent assigned to the Carter Page investigation, Case Agent 1, contacted [the Office of General Counsel] about the possibility of seeking FISA authority for Carter Page,” the IG report revealed.

The first question raised by a review of the IG report was a big one: What prompted Somma to push for a FISA warrant against Carter Page “almost immediately after opening” the Page investigation on August 10?

Recall, the FBI maintained that it launched Crossfire Hurricane because Trump campaign member George Papadopoulos had bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had dirt on Hillary. The FBI surmised this tip was somehow connected to the WikiLeaks release of the Democratic National Committee emails.

Why, then, “was the first potential use of FISA authority considered by the Crossfire Hurricane team” focused on Page and not on Papadopoulos—the individual who supposedly received the tip from Joseph Mifsud?

Somma claimed his concern was obtaining “valuable information about what Page did while in Moscow the previous month and the Russian officials with whom he may have spoken.” But again, why Page and not Papadopoulos as the first focus?

We don’t have an answer, but we do know that the Office of General Counsel concluded the FBI did not have enough evidence to obtain a FISA surveillance order until the next month, when the Crossfire Hurricane team received reporting from Christopher Steele “concerning Page’s alleged activities with Russian officials in the summer of 2016.” According to the IG report, “That ‘pushed it over’ the line in terms of establishing probable cause that Page was acting in concert with Russian officials.”

Did Somma Know of Steele’s Reporting?

But now that we know Somma’s identity, there’s a surrealness to this entire scene. Case Agent #1 was instantaneously interested in surveilling Page (but not Papadopoulos—that would come later). Yet such surveillance would only be approved the following month when Steele’s reporting finally made its way to the FBI’s D.C. headquarters.

Recall that the IG report maintained “the FBI first received reporting from Christopher Steele regarding alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections in early July 2016,” but the Crossfire Hurricane team “did not become aware of the Steele reporting until September 19, 2016.” But before then, only Steele’s handler and select agents in the New York Field Office knew of Steele’s reporting.

You know where Somma worked before joining the Crossfire Hurricane team in D.C. in August 2016? The FBI New York Field Office, where he served as a special agent for counter-intelligence with a focus on Russia.

The New York Field Office received Steele’s reporting in July when Steele’s handler, FBI Agent Michael Gaeta, on July 28, 2016, sent Steele’s first two memos to the assistant special agent in charge of the New York field office. While the assistant special agent in charge assured Gaeta the reports would be “walled off” from agents in New York field office, might Somma nonetheless have known of Steele’s reporting? Was that why he was so anxious to obtain a FISA warrant on Page?

Back to Cambridge

Here, we have to remember the incestuous relationships at play. Somma worked in counterintelligence at the New York Field Office and served as Stefan Halper’s long-time handler.

Besides being a “confidential human source” (CHS) for the FBI (and possibly other agencies), Halper maintained an academic position at Cambridge University, where he ran an Intelligence Seminar with Sir Richard Dearlove, Steele’s former MI6 boss. Somma, along with two other FBI agents, spoke at that seminar about the FBI and “Russian illegals.”

Additionally, Steele’s handler Gaeta had worked out of the New York field office, and according to the IG report, Steele had worked with the New York office to “support several ongoing criminal investigations involving transnational organized crime organizations.” So did Somma know, either from his work at the New York field office, or from his relationship with Halper, of Steele’s reporting?

Shame on Somma

Whether Somma knew of Steele’s reporting before it made its way to the rest of the Crossfire Hurricane team is unclear. What is clear, though, is that Somma was desperate to surveil Page—and in turn the Trump campaign. Beyond pushing for the FISA surveillance to start immediately, Somma bore responsibility for many of the substantial omissions and misstatements in the FISA warrant, as the IG report detailed:

As noted throughout this report, Case Agent 1 was primarily responsible for some of the most significant errors and omissions in the FISA applications, including (1) the mischaracterization of Steele’s prior reporting resulting from his failure to seek review and approval of the statement from the handling agent, as the Woods Procedures required, (2) the failure to advise 01 of Papadopoulos’s statements to FBI CHSs that were inconsistent with the Steele reporting relied upon in the FISA applications that there was a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and Russia, (3) the failure to advise 01 of Page’s statements to an FBI CHS regarding him having no communications with Manafort and denying the alleged meetings with Sechin and Divyekin, ( 4) providing inaccurate and incomplete information to 01 about information provided by another U.S. government agency regarding its past relationship with Page that was highly relevant to the applications, (5) the failure to advise 01 of the information from Bruce Ohr about Steele and his election reporting, and (6) the failure to advise 01 of the inconsistences between Steele and his Primary Sub-source. The explanations that Case Agent 1 provided for these errors and omissions are summarized in Chapter Five and Chapter Eight of this report. While we found no documentary or testimonial evidence that this pattern of errors by Case Agent 1 was intentional, we also did not find his explanations for so many significant and repeated failures to be satisfactory.

Spygate Spins Round to Halper Again

Somma’s supersized role in the FISA abuse seems eerily similar to the tentacle-wide reach of CHS Halper, whom Somma just so happened to handle. The day after the Crossfire Hurricane team opened an investigation into Page, Somma and his fellow team members met with Halper.

Somma claimed that since he “had never previously dealt with the ‘realm’ of political campaigns,” and thus “lacked a basic understanding of simple issues, for example what the role of a ‘foreign policy advisor’ entails, and how that person interacts with the rest of the campaign,” he proposed meeting with Halper, whom he knew “had been affiliated with national political campaigns since the early 1970s.” Significantly, the IG report then noted that Somma “also believed [Halper] might have information about, and potentially may have met, one or more of the Crossfire Hurricane subjects.”

Somma believed Halper may have met one or more of the Crossfire Hurricane subjects? But who?

This latter point proves suggestive: Somma believed Halper may have met one or more of the Crossfire Hurricane subjects? But who?

The four Crossfire Hurricane subjects were Papadopoulos, Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. Halper had never heard of Papadopoulos, and had first met Page only a few weeks prior, when Page attended a private dinner with Halper during a three-day conference at Cambridge University.

While the IG “investigated whether the FBI tasked any CHSs to meet with Carter Page prior to the opening of Crossfire Hurricane,” they “found no evidence that the FBI had,” and Somma and the other agents “each told the OIG that the FBI did not have anything to do with any operational activities against Carter Page prior to the start of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation on July 31, 2016.”

But the evidence strongly suggests someone charged Halper with contacting Page in mid-July, raising several questions: Was Halper a source for the CIA, or another intelligence agency? Or was Halper a source for Steele? And did Somma know of Halper’s­­ meeting with Page before arranging for him to talk with the Crossfire Hurricane team?

If not Page, that would leave Manafort and Flynn. Halper “had known Trump’s then campaign manager, Manafort, for a number of years” and he “had been previously acquainted with Michael Flynn.”

It’s possible that Somma knew of Halper’s connection to Manafort, although other facts caution against that conclusion: While Manafort was on the FBI’s radar before Crossfire Hurricane, it was the D.C. Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section operating out of the D.C. headquarters, that was charged with investigating Manafort, as opposed to the New York Field Office counterintelligence branch where Somma worked.

On the other hand, evidence continues to mount suggesting that Halper started spying on Flynn even before his “chance” meeting with Page in mid-July 2016, re-upping questions about Halper’s interest in Flynn and what Somma may have known about their “acquaintance.”

Somma seemed to deny any special knowledge about Halper’s connections, however, telling “the OIG that ‘quite honestly … we kind of stumbled upon [Halper] knowing these folks.’” It was “serendipitous” Somma said, that Halper “had contacts with three of their four subjects, including Carter Page.” And “the Crossfire Hurricane team ‘couldn’t believe [their] luck.’”

The IG report, however, never reconciled this reaction with Somma’s earlier statements that he believed Halper “may have met, one or more of the Crossfire Hurricane subjects.”

Who’s Handling Who?

The other possibility is that Somma wasn’t handling Halper, but that Halper was handling Somma.

It was Halper who asked Somma during the first meeting on Crossfire Hurricane “whether the team had any interest in an individual named Carter Page.” It was Halper who claimed Page had approached him during the mid-July meeting and asked him to be “a foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign”—a claim Page told The Federalist was not true.

The other possibility is that Somma wasn’t handling Halper, but that Halper was handling Somma.

It was Halper who told Somma and his compatriots that he “had no intention of joining the campaign,” but “was willing to assist with the ongoing investigation and to not notify the Trump campaign about [his] decision not to join.” It was Halper who told the Crossfire Hurricane team he expected “to be contacted in the near future by one of the senior leaders of the Trump campaign about joining the campaign,” and then it was Halper who secretly recorded his conversation with that leader, Sam Clovis.

And it was also the politically experienced Halper who sought to entice the politically green Page to collude with Russia—something he didn’t do—by claiming that in the old days, a campaign would have accepted the Russian DNC dirt “in a heartbeat.”

Halper’s meeting with Clovis also supports the theory that Halper ruled the roost. The IG report explained that Somma had tasked Halper with asking Clovis about “Papadopoulos and Carter Page ‘because they were … unknowns’ and the Crossfire Hurricane team was trying to find out how ‘these two individuals who are not known in political circles … [got] introduced to the campaign,’ including whether the person responsible for those introductions had ties to Russian Intelligence Services (RIS).”

But as I reported in my article on the extensive spying aimed at the Trump campaign, “when Halper spoke with Clovis on September 1, 2016, in a recorded conversation, Halper posed several questions about sensitive campaign strategies.”

For example, Halper asked Clovis “whether the Trump campaign was planning an ‘October Surprise,’” and learned the Trump campaign planned to focus on “giv[ing] people a reason to vote for him, not just vote against Hillary.” Clovis also shared with Halper that Trump did not want to “do a traditional campaign,” and added “additional comments about the internal structure, organization, and functioning of the Trump campaign.”

Halper’s recorded conversation with Clovis delved even deeper into campaign concerns, with Halper discussing with Clovis “an internal campaign debate about Trump’s immigration strategy, efforts to reach out to minority groups and the impact of those efforts, and the campaign’s strategies for responding to questions about Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns.”

The IG report did not detail the content of these conversations, but here, an earlier comment Halper made to Page proves significant: Prior to meeting with Clovis, Halper told Page that he was available whenever Clovis “wants to chat,” then Halper added that he “would like to meet with [Clovis],” because there are “some things that have to be done at this part of … the campaign…. And if you don’t do them you’re going to lose.”

Maybe the FBI didn’t task Halper to spy on the Trump campaign, but Halper’s comments to Page, coupled with the topics he discussed with Clovis, reveal Halper ignored that directive. In other words, Somma wasn’t the handler he thought he was! Unless, of course, Halper did exactly what Somma wanted.

We won’t know the answers to these questions—and many more—until Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham complete their investigation into the targeting of the Trump campaign. In the meantime, the leak of Somma’s identity to The New York Times suggests more revelations will be forthcoming soon.

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 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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