The ongoing special Justice Department investigation into improper spying on the Trump campaign in 2016 highlights key failings by the FBI's once-storied counterintelligence division.
Two senior counterintelligence officials no longer with the bureau are among likely targets of the investigation by John Durham, U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut. Both were key managers of the high-profile investigations in 2016 into classified information found on Hillary Clinton's private email server, and the now-discredited counterspy operation into links between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian government.
A central figure is Peter Strzok, deputy assistant FBI director for the counterintelligence division, who was fired in August. Another key player was his boss, Bill Priestap, assistant FBI director for counterintelligence, who quietly resigned in December.
In the three years since the controversial investigations, the FBI counterintelligence division has sought to rebuild its reputation by conducting aggressive operations untainted by past allegations of liberal political bias through recent high-profile spy cases. Three former CIA officials and a former State Department official in recent months were convicted of spying for China, and Russian military intelligence operatives, while out of reach of U.S. law enforcement, were indicted for cyber attacks in the 2016 election meddling scheme.
The current counterspy activities still are a far cry from one of the FBI's most significant past successes in the Cold War. FBI counterspies successfully recruited and ran Soviet agent Morris Childs, the No. 2 official in the Communist Party USA, as a double agent for 30 years, reaping an intelligence windfall of secrets supplied through Childs' access to Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party leaders.
Since the 1990s, however, FBI counterintelligence has suffered numerous failures. They include botched counterspy investigations into Chinese nuclear spies that stole American warhead secrets; a Chinese double agent who worked as an informant for the FBI in Los Angeles; and, most damaging, failing to uncover FBI turncoat agent Robert Hanssen who worked as an FBI counterspy and Moscow agent undetected for more than 20 years.
Other counterintelligence lapses included a Cuban mole that operated secretly inside for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the loss of more than two dozen recruited CIA assets in China, and the arrests of numerous recruited intelligence agents in Iran beginning in 2010.
Most of the recent criticism of the FBI's counterspy division is focused on Strzok, the most senior agent directly involved with both controversial 2016 investigations.
According to a Justice Department inspector general report, Strzok undermined the FBI by sending text messages to his mistress, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, suggesting he was prepared to use the FBI's formidable counterintelligence power to stop candidate Donald Trump from becoming president.
Strzok's extramarital affair also was a major counterintelligence threat that made him vulnerable to blackmail by foreign spy services and highlights lax standards for FBI counterspies.
Strzok also was chastised in a more recent Justice Department IG report that concluded May 29. The IG, without naming Strzok, stated that an FBI deputy assistant director, disclosed law enforcement and court-sealed information to the news media and accepted $225 in a gift from a news reporter for attending a media-sponsored dinner in violation of FBI and federal policy. The notice referenced the earlier IG report on the Clinton email probe that was led by Strzok until he shifted his focus—to the detriment of the email probe—to the Trump-Russia collusion investigation that was eventually taken over by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mueller concluded after an extensive investigation there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, dealing a blow to the near-hysteria among Trump critics and liberal news outlets for more than two years.
Strzok's lawyer did not return emails seeking comment on the latest IG findings.
Improper Spying Against Trump Campaign
Attorney General Bill Barr revealed to Congress in April that potentially improper political spying "did occur" against the Trump campaign. Barr directed that the Durham investigation to find out if the counterintelligence probe launched in July 2016 against the Trump campaign and code-named Crossfire Hurricane was conducted properly.
In a recent CBS News interview, Barr disclosed he believes the FBI's major Russia counterintelligence investigation was flawed.
"People have to understand, one of the things here is that these efforts in 2016, these counter-intelligence activities that were directed at the Trump campaign, were not done in the normal course and not through the normal procedures, as a far as I can tell," Barr said. "And a lot of the people who were involved are no longer there."
Some former intelligence officials criticized Barr's use of the term "spying" to describe Crossfire Hurricane. Barr, a former CIA official, pushed back.
"Yeah, I mean, I guess it's become a dirty word somehow. It hasn't ever been for me. I think there is nothing wrong with spying," he said. "The question is always whether it is authorized by law and properly predicated and if it is then it's an important tool the United States has to protect the country."
Barr explained that questions relating to Crossfire Hurricane include whether the investigation was "adequately predicated" or whether it was politically motivated.
Americans need to be worried about foreign attempts to influence the U.S. election process because a central feature of the democratic system is the peaceful transfer of power through elections.
"And if foreign elements can come in and affect it, that's bad for the republic," Barr said. "But by the same token, it's just as dangerous to the continuation of self-government and our republic system that we not allow government power, law enforcement, or intelligence power, to play a role in politics, to intrude into politics, and affect elections."
Foreign influence and improper political spying are "both troubling," he added.
"Republics have fallen because of [a] praetorian guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion is somehow an enemy of the state," Barr said.
The special investigation is needed because "the use of foreign intelligence capabilities and counterintelligence capabilities against an American political campaign to me is unprecedented and it's a serious red line that's been crossed," he added.
Little Done About Russian Interference in 2016 Despite Ample Evidence
The attorney general also questioned why so little was done by FBI and other counterintelligence agencies against Russian intelligence activities during the 2016 presidential election—despite evidence of that the Russian operation was underway in late 2015 or early 2016.
Indictments against Russian GRU intelligence agencies and members of a Russian Internet troll farm in St. Petersburg were not issued until 2018 by Mueller.
"I think Bob Mueller did some impressive work in his investigation identifying some of the Russian hackers and their influence campaign, and you sort of wonder if that kind of work had been done starting in 2016, things could have been a lot different," Barr said.
Bill Evanina, an FBI agent now in charge of the DNI National Counterintelligence and Security Center, has said no action was taken against the Russians before the November 2016 election because of a decision by Obama administration policymaker—even though Evanina nominally is the government's most senior counterintelligence policymaker.
Barr also questioned the FBI's attempt to place an agent inside the Trump campaign as part of the Crossfire Hurricane.
Regarding FBI assertions that bureau counterspies were alarmed by what they believed to be a Russian intelligence operation targeting the Trump campaign, Barr said: "I'm wondering what exactly was the response to it if they were alarmed. Surely the response should have been more than just dangling a confidential informant in front of a peripheral player in the Trump campaign."
Barr said he wants investigators to find out the basis for launching Crossfire Hurricane, who approved it, and details of the electronic surveillance.
Justice IG Investigating Possible Improper FISA Surveillance
In addition to the Durham investigation, the Justice IG is investigating whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court properly authorized the electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, he said.
Page in the past cooperated with the FBI in a counterintelligence investigation of Russian intelligence agents in New York. Yet he was targeted for surveillance in an unusual FISA warrant issued by a secret court based in part on the lurid and unverified anti-Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and funded by the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.
Use of the dossier in obtaining the FISA warrant is among the more serious potential violations of FBI counterintelligence rules.
FISA warrants are normally used to spy on foreign intelligence officers or foreign terrorists. When warrants are issued for surveillance of Americans, the FBI is obligated to provide more extensive documentation to justify the use of the surveillance on Americans rather than foreign nationals.
If the FBI failed to properly inform the FISA court about the Democratic Party origins of the Steele dossier, the lapse could lead to greater restrictions on secret electronic surveillance and limit future counterintelligence capabilities.
Barr said he turned to Durham rather than rely on Justice IG Michael Horowitz to examine the case because the IG has limited power. Durham, he said, will be able to compel testimony from former government officials involved in the Russia probe, like Strzok and Priestap.
Barr said he appointed the special investigator after stonewalling from government bureaucrats.
"Like many other people who are familiar with intelligence activities, I had a lot of questions about what was going on," he said. "I assumed I'd get answers when I went in, and I have not gotten answers that are, well, satisfactory, and in fact probably have more questions, and that some of the facts that I've learned don't hang together with the official explanations of what happened."
"Things are just not jiving," he said of the responses.
Barr believes any failures regarding the Russia probe likely are limited to a small group of senior FBI leaders, and is not a problem throughout the FBI.
Senior FBI Officials Linked to Shortcomings
Among the senior FBI people linked to the shortcomings is fired FBI Director James Comey and Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, along with Strzok.
An FBI spokeswoman said Priestap retired in December after reaching retirement age and declined to comment further on the circumstances of his departure.
The Clinton email investigation was launched when McCabe was director of the Washington field office and was tainted in 2015 after McCabe's wife ran for state senate. Her campaign was paid $675,000 by a political action committee for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D.), a long-time Clinton associate. McCabe recused himself from the counterintelligence probes after the funding was disclosed.
Strzok, who was a lead agent on the Clinton email probe, was criticized by the IG for delaying a New York FBI office request for a search warrant needed to investigate the 350,000 Clinton-related emails found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin after the email probe had been closed.
That discovery would eventually lead to reopening the email probe and congressional notification of the renewed investigation made public days before the November 2016 election.
Comey was faulted by the IG for violating Justice Department rules in announcing in July 2016 that the FBI—which is not in charge of prosecution decisions—recommended against prosecuting Clinton for illegally placing highly classified information on her private email server. Comey made the announcement without notifying or consulting Justice Department prosecutors beforehand.
In reopening the Clinton email probe, Comey told the IG that one of his motivations was worries that the FBI would be criticized and its reputation sullied for not reopening the probe.
Barr said he could not ascribe intentions to those who mishandled the Russia probe but the motives may not have been nefarious.
"Sometimes people can convince themselves that what they're doing is in the higher interest, the better good," he said. "They don't realize that what they're doing is really antithetical to the democratic system that we have. They start viewing themselves as the guardians of the people that are more informed and insensitive than everybody else. They can, in their own mind, have those kinds of motives. And sometimes they can look at evidence and facts through a biased prism that they themselves don't realize."
Strzok's text threatening to derail Trump was one example.
"It's hard to read some of the texts and not feel that there was gross bias at work and they're appalling," Barr said.
Page asked Strzok in a text if Trump would be elected and Strzok replied "No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it."
Ken deGraffenreid, a counterintelligence expert, said the problem with FBI counterintelligence is that it lacks qualified personnel and a strategic approach to countering foreign spies.
Of Crossfire Hurricane, deGraffenreid said the operation was poorly run and demonstrated a lack of seriousness. "If this was the best they could do in counterintelligence, it's pretty poor," he said, noting that seasoned counterspies would have recognized a lack of Russian collusion with the campaign from the start.
DeGraffenreid believes the FBI, spurred on by the liberal news media, probably reacted to Trump's half-joking comment that if Russia had intercepted Clinton's emails, Moscow should make them public.
"And the FBI swallowed the Steele dossier hook, line and sinker," he said.
The dossier was based on unverified information obtained by Steele and fed to the FBI alleging that Trump was a Russian agent and had cavorted with Russian prostitutes.
The FBI's approach to Crossfire Hurricane lacked a serious "counterintelligence mind" that requires more in-depth critical thinking and real signs of Russian collusion. Instead, meetings with Russians in Trump Tower, a meeting with a Russian ambassador, and the activities of two minor campaign figures, Page and George Papadopoulos, who were thought to be Russian agents was the main thesis basis for launching Crossfire Hurricane.
DeGraffenreid, former deputy national counterintelligence executive with extensive experience, said those signs are not what a Russian intelligence operation to penetrate an American political campaign would look like.
Biases Appeared to Seep into Crossfire Hurricane Investigation
Former FBI counterspy I.C. Smith said Crossfire Hurricane appeared to be launched not by FBI field operatives who the most experienced at doing counterintelligence but from FBI headquarters.
Strzok and Page were properly fired for exchanging the politically charged texts and emails, he said.
"The damage they've done to the FBI will last for years," Smith said. "But having said that, I'm not sure that necessarily translates into their letting their biases interfere with their work on the FISA, etc. I wouldn't characterize their texts as threatening to derail the Trump campaign so much as posturing with little capability to do anything about it."
Smith said Strzok and Page could have undermined the Trump campaign by leaking to the press the fact of the investigation and that was not done.
"If indeed, FBI [headquarters] was essentially conducting the investigation, that too, is against protocol," Smith said, something done in the past by FBI Director Louis Freeh who interfered extensively with field investigations, including the probe into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
"But FBI HQ managers should not conduct investigations. That's a field office function, period," Smith said.
DeGraffenreid said the fallout from Crossfire Hurricane likely will further weaken an already poor FBI counterintelligence capability. Bureaucratically, the fallout will further erode support for aggressive counterintelligence and dissuade the most capable people from seeking counterspy positions.
Strzok, based on his congressional testimony and publicized text, revealed himself to be ill-suited for counterintelligence. The FBI counterspy came across as "an arrogant bureaucrat" in his congressional testimony, deGraffenreid said. "He's not George Smiley."
Also, as outlined by the Justice IG, the FBI's protective bureaucratic culture is in need of correcting.
"There's extreme bureaucratization there with a culture that thinks the bureau is something other than the United States," said deGraffenreid who worked with senior FBI officials in government for more than 30 years.
"More than any other government bureaucracy, the FBI will openly lie to protect the FBI's reputation," he said, adding that of all the intelligence disciplines, counterintelligence requires the smartest and best analysts and operators free of political bias like that shown by Strzok.