Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz created waves in Washington last week with the release of a lengthy report about the origins of the “Crossfire Hurricane” Trump-Russia investigation.
Pundits focused on his finding of no “political bias” in the decision to investigate Donald Trump, while conservatives focused on abuses of the FISA process. Horowitz left a lot of key questions about the Russia investigation unanswered, however, including:
- Who is Joseph Mifsud?
A congressional source last week said, “I don’t see any way the investigation can be aboveboard if Mifsud isn’t a Russian agent.”
Horowitz said all four of the FISA warrant applications for Carter Page relied upon a core probable-cause argument based on the idea that the FBI was conducting a legitimate investigation into Russian election interference.
Horowitz wrote that the “sole predication” for that investigation was a statement former Trump aide George Papadopoulos made to an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer. Papadopoulos allegedly told Downer that a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud told him that Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Horowitz said that “if true,” this first-hand account from a friendly foreign government was “sufficient to satisfy the low threshold” for opening an investigation. This was hardly the ringing endorsement of a “justified” probe many saw.
When Horowitz found no evidence that Mifsud “ever acted as an FBI [confidential human source],” pundits saw this as devastating to the Trumpian “conspiracy theory” that the FBI investigation was a setup. Maybe, but the original conspiracy theory was that Mifsud was a Russian agent, and Horowitz, like Robert Mueller before him, found no evidence of this, either.
The Mifsud story was always bizarre. The professor introduced Papadopoulos, who’d been with the Trump campaign for about 10 minutes at that point, to a “beautiful” Russian woman he said was Vladimir Putin’s niece. Putin doesn’t have a niece. The woman, Olga Polonskaya, worked for a Rome wine company. Mifsud denied any foreknowledge of the DNC hack or making “any offer” to the Trump campaign, while Papadopoulos denied speaking about Russia at all to Downer, who told still a different story from the other two.
If Mifsud is not a Russian agent, the absurdity factor of all this multiplies: A years-long counterintelligence investigation will have been based on a botched game of telephone between three Westerners of varying degrees of shadiness, with no Russian-intelligence link ever found. It’s like something out of a Graham Greene novel. The only thing missing is Papadopoulos handing Downer a barroom-napkin sketch of a giant vacuum cleaner.
- Someone is not telling the truth, Vol. 1:
The Horowitz report is not kind to former CIA chief John Brennan.
Brennan in May of 2017 testified before Congress that he was “aware of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons” that “served as the basis for the FBI investigation.”
Horowitz contradicts this:
We also asked those FBI officials involved . . . whether the FBI received any other information, such as from members of the USIC, that the FBI relied upon to predicate Crossfire Hurricane. All of them told us that there was no such information. . . . We also asked [James] Comey and [Andrew] McCabe about then-CIA Director John Brennan’s statements. . . . Comey told us that while Brennan shared intelligence . . . [he] did not provide any information that predicated or prompted the FBI to open Crossfire Hurricane.
If Brennan was not the “basis” for Crossfire Hurricane, his testimony was wrong. Alternatively, if Brennan did pass information that contributed to starting Crossfire Hurricane, that would mean senior FBI officials were not truthful with Horowitz. Something isn’t right here.
- Someone is not telling the truth, Vol. 2:
In a related problem, Horowitz on pages 75-76 of his report says former Attorney General Loretta Lynch told his office that “in the spring of 2016, Comey and [former Deputy Director Andrew] McCabe pulled her aside and provided information about Carter Page, which Lynch believed they learned from another member of the Intelligence Community.”
Comey and McCabe both denied this, telling Horowitz they did not remember being told about Carter Page. With regard to Lynch’s recollection of a conversation, Comey said “he did not think it was possible for such conversation to have occurred in the spring of 2016 because the FBI did not receive the [tip from Alexander Downer] concerning Papadopoulos until late July.”
To recap: The attorney general recalled being told about Page by the FBI in the spring of 2016, and believed the information came from another intelligence service. The former head of the CIA testified he gave information to the FBI that was the “basis” for Crossfire Hurricane. Top FBI officials said they didn’t remember any of this, and insisted the investigation began with the Downer tip in July of 2016.
Three different stories, still, from officials at the CIA, FBI, and Justice Department.
- To whom does footnote 461 refer?
At the bottom of page 310, Horowitz describes an unusual communication to the FBI by a “former” confidential informant:
[A] former FBI CHS . . . contacted an FBI agent in an FBI field office in late July 2016 to report information from “a colleague who runs an investigative firm . . . hired by two entities (the Democratic National Committee [DNC] as well as another individual . . . [who was] not name[d]) to explore Donald Trump’s longstanding ties to Russian entities.” The former CHS also gave the FBI agent a list of “individuals and entities who have surfaced in [the investigative firm’s] examination,” which the former CHS described as “mostly public source material.”
Horowitz goes on to say McCabe sent word that the FBI agent was not to collect any more information from this source, and should not “accept any information regarding the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”
During testimony last week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley asked Horowitz if the “investigative firm” in this footnote was Fusion-GPS. Horowitz said he’d have to get back to him.
This footnote raised a few eyebrows on the Hill. Among other things, it seems to imply that the “investigative firm” was connected with the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane probe at that early juncture in July of 2016. (Why else would McCabe need to insist on not accepting information regarding Crossfire Hurricane?)
It would be interesting to know who this “former FBI CHS” is, why this person felt a need to reach out to the FBI about his colleague’s firm, and why the FBI shut down this source.
- Are media corrections forthcoming?
The Horowitz report makes clear that multiple news cycles over the past few years were dominated by reports that were either incorrect or lacking factual foundation.
These included assertions by multiple outlets that the Steele dossier was not central to the FBI’s efforts to secure a warrant on Page; that the FBI found Christopher Steele and his dossier “credible”; that tales of FISA abuse were a conspiracy theory (one of many claims Mother Jones called “bullshit”); that the memo written by Devin Nunes on the subject was wrong and had been “debunked”; that Russians “blocked” Trump from nominating Mitt Romney as secretary of state; that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen was in Prague (presumably to meet Russian hackers); that a “pee tape” existed; that Russia’s Alfa Bank and the Trump campaign were communicating via a secret server; that the FISA warrant on Page must have been producing good intelligence in order to be renewed three times; and many other things.
The Washington Post is one of the few outlets to start the process of reassessing its coverage, noting in a fact check that a “fair amount” of the Nunes memo had been “vindicated” by Horowitz. Ari Melber of MSNBC also called out James Comey for being “over his skis” on the “pee tape.” These are first steps, but Horowitz’s findings suggest a much broader thematic media FUBAR that’s still being ignored.
Horowitz makes clear that the dossier by Steele was the linchpin — if not the only foundation — for the FBI’s Trump-Russia conspiracy case. As one FBI agent says in the report, “The minute we put the [Steele election reporting] in there, it goes from what you’d expect the FBI to be collecting in a counterintelligence context to direct allegations about collusion with the Trump campaign.”
But the FBI had serious reasons to doubt this “election reporting” by January of 2017, when it learned Steele’s primary source disagreed with his findings, describing the most explosive claims as coming from a conversation “over beers” made in “jest.” Worse, the FBI knew this source was a “boaster” prone to embellishment. FBI teams were unable to corroborate Steele’s nonpublic findings.
Yet reporters kept taking the bait on the key idea that Steele was an in-the-know superspy whose conspiracy/blackmail claims were taken seriously by investigators. Credulous reports originating from this premise — about Comey’s “bombshell” delivery of Steele’s compromise claims to Trump, or news that a court found “probable cause” to believe Page was a foreign agent, or even in hagiographic portraits of Steele as a real-life George Smiley — now look like fruit from a poisoned tree. Was it eaten knowingly or unknowingly?
If reporters were burned, they should be angry, and corrections should be forthcoming. If there isn’t an effort to reverse the wrong coverage, it will look like certain outlets (particularly cable channels) were complicit in knowingly giving oceans of airtime to shaky stories. It’s a bad look either way, but door number two is worse.