WSJ Columnist: The FBI Is Abusing Secrecy Powers To Save Itself From Embarrassment

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Dec 18, 2017 1:15 PM
WSJ Columnist: The FBI Is Abusing Secrecy Powers To Save Itself From Embarrassment

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has seen better days. While there is zero evidence of collusion, the political Left thinks Russia’s meddling in our 2016 election helped tilt the race in Donald Trump’s favor. Congress has launched investigations into the matter. Yet, it seems the meddling was also coming from within the halls of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. We have a since demoted DOJ official meeting with the author of the infamous Trump dossier, former MI6 operative Christopher Steele. To boot, his wife worked for the firm that hired Steele during the 2016 election. Concerning other bias, you have Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s top lieutenant, Andrew Weissmann, being spotted at Hillary Clinton’s election night party, the same man who voiced praise for then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates for defying the White House in refusing to enforce its executive order on immigration.

Yet, the 10,000 texts sent between FBI agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an extramarital affair, have become the subject of concern. Yes, the texts are anti-Trump and pro-Hillary, with the timeline of such communications beginning in August 15, 2015-December 1, 2016. The August 15, 2016 text between Page and Strzok is the one that's raised eyebrows because the former was a top counter-intelligence agent at the time, who mentioned something about “insurance” against a Trump presidency. What is that? Strzok did sign off on the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump-Russia connection that began in July of 2016. Is that what he meant? The Wall Street Journal noted the rather troubling instances that have potentially damaged the integrity of the FBI and the Department of Justice. So, what about disclosure concerning these activities and will we get any answers? As the Journal’s Kim Strassel wrote on December 14, the FBI seems more concerned about hiding their potentially bad, or embarrassing, behavior. She aptly noted that this has nothing to do with protecting national security.

For example, some in the media speculated last year whether fired FBI Director James Comey violated the Hatch Act. This all stems from the former FBI director’s letter to Congress notifying them that they will be reviewing more Clinton emails found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, who was under investigation for lewd communications with a minor. We later found out that Weiner and his ex-wife Huma Abedin, who was a top Clinton aide, shared the laptop. Some in the Clinton camp think this letter tilted the race; it did not. They allege that the timing of the letter and its impact somehow constituted a Hatch Act violation; the act bars federal employees within the executive from engaging in political activity. Well, Comey was actually investigated for that, but the FBI has refused to turn over the documents. The same course of action was taken regarding withholding the Strzok-Page texts, with the FBI keeping these communications from Congress for four months. In her op-ed, Strassel, highlighting the DOJ Inspector General’s letter to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), the chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, wants to know when did the FBI know about these texts. The Wisconsin Republican also wants answers, and has given the FBI until December 27 to turn over the unexpurgated interviews  between two top Comey aides, as they might shed light into the activities of Strzok, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Strassel added that even the redacted files that have been released have pointed out some key developments, namely that James Comey was drafting Clinton’s exoneration statement before agents interviewed the former first lady (viaWSJ):

…the FBI has plenty of things it needs to keep secret regarding national security and law enforcement. Let’s even acknowledge the bureau may be rightly concerned about turning some information over to today’s leak-prone Congress. Even so, in the specific case of its 2016 election behavior, the FBI is misusing its secrecy powers to withhold information whose disclosure is in the public interest.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson exposed two such instances this week, from his perch as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Mr. Johnson received a letter Wednesday from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who graciously and nimbly provided information that the committee had requested last week.

That letter included some notable dates. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is emphasizing its ejection of FBI agent Peter Strzok immediately upon learning about anti-Trump texts he exchanged with another FBI employee, Lisa Page, before the 2016 election. But when did the FBI learn of the messages? The inspector general’s investigation began in mid-January. The letter explains that the FBI was asked for text messages of certain key employees based on search terms, which turned up “a number of politically-oriented” Strzok-Page texts. The inspector general then demanded all of the duo’s text messages, which the FBI began producing on July 20.

But when did the FBI dig up and turn over that very first tranche? How long has the bureau known one of its lead investigators was exhibiting such bias? Was it before Mr. Mueller was even appointed? Did FBI leaders sit by as the special counsel tapped Mr. Strzok? In any case, we know from the letter that the inspector general informed both Messrs. [Deputy AG Rod] Rosenstein and Mueller of the texts on July 27, and that both men hid that explosive information from Congress for four months. The Justice Department, pleading secrecy, defied subpoenas that would have produced the texts. It refused to make Mr. Strzok available for an interview. It didn’t do all this out of fear of hurting national security, obviously. It did it to save itself and the FBI from embarrassment.

This week’s other revelation of jaw-dropping FBI tactics came from a separate letter from Mr. Johnson. In November 2016, the Office of Special Counsel—a federal agency that polices personnel practices and is distinct from the Mueller probe—began investigating whether former FBI Director Jim Comey violated the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity by executive-branch officials, while investigating Hillary Clinton’s private server. The office conducted interviews with two of Mr. Comey’s confidantes: FBI chief of staff James Rybicki and FBI attorney Trisha Anderson.

Sen. Johnson in September demanded the full, unredacted transcripts of the interviews. But it turned out the FBI had refused to let the Office of Special Counsel interview them unless it first signed unprecedented nondisclosure agreements, giving the FBI full authority to withhold the information from Congress. The bureau has continued to insist the office keep huge swaths of the interviews secret from Congress, including the names and actions of key political players. (The Office of Special Counsel closed its investigation in May.)

So, right now we have a case of who’s watching the Watchmen? National Review certainly took that view, while also tying together the controversies that seem to be engulfing the bureau:

In August 2016, Strzok, who played a lead-investigator role in the Hillary Clinton–emails investigation, flatly stated that the FBI could not “take that risk,” referring to the possibility that Donald Trump might be elected president. He made the statement in a message to Lisa Page, a bureau lawyer with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Strzok referred to an alternative FBI “path” regarding Trump’s “unlikely” election that Page had proposed during a meeting they’d attended in “Andy’s office” — meaning deputy director Andrew McCabe, the bureau’s number-two official, second only to then-director James Comey.

[…]

Around the time of Strzok’s message, the FBI and the Obama Justice Department had come into possession of the anti-Trump “dossier” compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. The dossier was opposition research commissioned by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, through their lawyers. They had retained a research company, Fusion GPS, which hired Steele, who evidently paid Russian sources for what appears to be dodgy information.

[…]

We now know that one of Fusion’s point people on the project was a Russia analyst named Nellie Ohr, the wife of Bruce Ohr, the Obama Justice Department’s associate deputy attorney general. He was the right hand of Sally Yates, the famously anti-Trump deputy AG who was eventually — and justifiably — fired by Trump for insubordination (when she was his inherited acting AG). Bruce Ohr held meetings with Steele and Fusion founder Glenn Simpson (and has now been demoted over them). During the summer of 2016, the Justice Department and the bureau sought a warrant from a secret federal court to conduct surveillance of a Trump-campaign official. It is reported that agents used information from the dossier to obtain the warrant, even though, as recently as March 2017, then-director Comey dismissed Steele’s work as “salacious and unverified” in congressional testimony. For months, the House Intelligence Committee has been pressing for answers about whether and how this Clinton-campaign document was used to obtain the authority for the surveillance; the Justice Department and the FBI won’t answer and refuse to produce the warrant. 

Everything that has happened in the Trump probe stands out against a backdrop of leniency in the Clinton investigation. While Mueller has prosecuted two Trump associates for lying to the FBI, the Obama Justice Department gave a pass to Mrs. Clinton and her subordinates, who gave the FBI misinformation about such key matters as whether Clinton understood markings in classified documents and whether her aides knew about her homebrew server system during their State Department service. Mueller’s team conducted a predawn raid at gunpoint in executing a search warrant on Paul Manafort’s home while Manafort was cooperating with congressional committees. When it came to the Clinton case, though, the Justice Department not only eschewed search warrants, or even mere subpoenas, but they never even took possession of the DNC server alleged to have been hacked by Russian operatives.

They don’t call for an end to the Russia probe, or the firing of Mueller, but they do think an outside federal attorney should heavily scrutinize the two investigations. 


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