A lawyer for a confidential FBI informant said Tuesday FBI officials told him that information about a Russian nuclear bribery scheme he was helping to uncover had reached the highest levels of government—that former President Barack Obama and other senior officials had been briefed on the illegal influence-peddling.
At least one of those presidential briefings occurred before the Obama administration's approval of a Russian takeover of a large U.S. uranium mine in the fall of 2010, the lawyer said FBI officials told her client.
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The deal gave the Kremlin control of up to 20 percent of U.S. uranium supply.
"While he has no first-hand information about what was in the president's daily briefings, he was told unequivocally by the agents that information from the bribery case had been shared with the president and other senior officials and was given praise for providing that evidence," the attorney, Victoria Toensing, told the Hill.
Rep. Peter King, (R.,N.Y.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday told reporters that he is particularly concerned about the Uranium One deal because he and three other top Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R., Fla.), had warned against approving it in 2010.
King said he knows those concerns were brought to "the highest levels" of the Obama administration because he received a letter in response from then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who served on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), "saying it was getting full scrutiny."
"Seven years ago this month, I raised these objections with the Treasury secretary who said they were being fully investigated," he said. "Obviously, we want to see what happened with that inquiry, what information was brought to their attention and what they knew then, and why they acted or didn't act and put it into context of what has come out since then."
Any evidence that senior Obama administration officials, not to mention the president himself, was taking the FBI's probe into a sweeping Russian bribery scheme seriously before the U.S. government approved Russia's acquisition of Canada-based Uranium One could provide critical insights into why the U.S. government signed off on the deal amid the probe.
The Russian bribery scheme involved kickbacks, extortion, and money laundering, the Hill and Circa News reported over the last week. The Uranium One chairman through his family foundation donated $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation, and individuals with ties to the Russian nuclear industry also donated to the charity.
Revelations about the FBI probe also are refocusing attention on a $500,000 payment from a Kremlin-tied Russian bank to former President Bill Clinton and whether it was part of Moscow's multi-million dollar scheme to sway then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to sign off on the deal giving Russia a controlling stake in Uranium One.
Bill Clinton had tried to meet with a top aide to Russia's president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, during the trip in question. The aide was a board director of the Russian state-controlled company. He met instead with Vladimir Putin, who was serving as prime minister at the time.
Clinton delivered the paid speech in Moscow the same month the Russians began the process of acquiring the U.S. uranium.
Hillary Clinton's role in the approval of the Uranium One deal and Bill Clinton's $500,000 speaking fee were first scrutinized in 2015 in the book Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweizer. The New York Times later wrote about the millions in donations to the Clinton Foundation from Uranium One board members and others with ties to the Russian nuclear industry.
New reporting last week by the Hill and Circa News about the existence of the FBI criminal investigation dating back to 2009 has once again thrown a spotlight on the deal.
The Justice Department slowly and quietly pursued the case for several years, bringing only one charge of money laundering against Vadim Mikerin, a Russian nuclear agency executive, with little fanfare and press coverage in 2014.
Hillary Clinton on Monday called the renewed focus on the uranium deal "baloney" and accused Republicans of trying to distract from the multiple probes into Russian meddling in the presidential election, including the one lead by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who served as FBI director during the Obama administration.
Three congressional committees are now investigating the Uranium One deal to try to find out if Clinton and other Obama Cabinet officials, purposely turned a blind eye to bribery and other illegal activity from major Russian players, including a top Russian nuclear executive, before the U.S. government approved the deal.
Key members of Congress who the Obama administration are required to brief about any high-level, classified foreign policy and national security issues, say they weren't briefed on the FBI's Russian bribery investigation.
"This is just the beginning of this probe—we’re not going to jump to any conclusions at this time," Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), who chairs the Intelligence Committee, told reporters Tuesday. "One of the things, as you know, we're concerned about is whether or not there was an FBI investigation, was there a DOJ investigation, and if so why was Congress not informed of this matter?"
Nunes stepped aside from his committee's investigation into Russia's ties to the Trump campaign and Moscow's meddling in the U.S. presidential election earlier this year after a White House meeting about an aspect of the probe spurred criticism he was too conflicted to lead the investigation.
The new Uranium One revelations raise serious conflict-of-interest issues involving several Obama administration officials who either knew or should have known about the bribery scheme involving key Russian nuclear executives, several GOP lawmakers argue.
Clinton in her role as secretary of state sat the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, along with several other cabinet members, including Attorney General Eric Holder. CFIUS is the inter-agency government entity that approved the acquisition of Uranium One deal by a subsidiary of Rosatam, Russia's state-controlled nuclear-energy arm.
Holder, as the top Justice Department official, would undoubtedly know about a probe involving senior-level Russian officials.
Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is now presiding over the federal government’s investigation into Russian ties to associate of President Donald Trump, was FBI director at the time. He would not only know about the probe, he would likely have signed off on it.
"We'll be focusing on how the inter-agency process worked in this and how we don't think that it worked out very well," said Rep. Ron DeSantis, (R., Fla.), who chairs the House Oversight panel's national security subcommittee.
The House Oversight and House Intelligence Committees on Tuesday announced a joint probe into the Uranium One deal and the Justice Department's handling of the Russian bribery investigation and prosecution.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R., Iowa), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has been investigating the Uranium One deal for several weeks. He wants to know whether the Justice Department has "fully investigated" whether "the Russians compromised the Obama administration's decision to smooth the way for the transaction."
"It turns out that during the transaction, the Justice Department had an ongoing criminal investigation for bribery, extortion, and money laundering into officials for the Russian company making that purchase," Grassley said last week. "Russians involved in the conspiracy were reportedly coordinating with high-level officials close to Vladimir Putin," he added.
Grassley also wants the Justice Department to release the confidential informant from a non-disclosure agreement he signed during the Obama administration and has questioned whether Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be allowed to conduct any investigation into the Obama's handling of the uranium sale to the Russians.
Rosenstein was the U.S. attorney in Maryland who investigated and prosecuted the Russian bribery scheme.
Before they knew about the FBI's Russian racketeering probe, and some of the recent revelations provided by the FBI confidential informant, Republican critics of the Uranium One deal believed it was simply an example of the Obama administration and other naïve U.S. politicians supporting a Russia reset and freer trade between the two nations.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. had been building strong business ties to Russia, including commerce involving nuclear energy. Former President George H.W. Bush inked a deal to allow U.S. nuclear providers to buy uranium from Russia's nuclear warheads that had been downgraded from the highly enriched weaponized levels.
Critics of greater cooperation between the two nations complained former President George W. Bush tried to continue the civilian nuclear cooperation despite concerns that Russia was then providing Iran with nuclear technology and providing Syria with advanced conventional weapons in violation of nonproliferation laws.
Bush only withdrew the proposed nuclear accord after Russia invaded Georgia. The Obama administration quickly picked up where Bush had left off, submitting a new U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation agreement to Congress in 2010 despite evidence of Russia’s continued involvement in Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons program, and Moscow's role in running interference for Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
By Obama's second year in office, Putin's ambitions to expand his nuclear energy business operations inside the U.S. were well under way, and Mikerin, the Russian official who headed a U.S.-based subsidiary of Rosatom called Tenam USA, had played a key role in fulfilling those goals.
The same year the Obama administration approved the Uranium One deal it reportedly issued a visa for Mikerin.
The visa was awarded even though the FBI had already gathered "substantial evidence" in the fall of 2009 that he was involved in the Russian racketeering scheme, the Hill has reported. The Justice Department arrested and charged Mikerin with extortion several years later, legal documents show.
With several Republicans vocally opposing the Uranium One deal back in 2010 before CFIUS signed off on it, there's an obvious question about whether the Obama administration purposely played down Mikerin’s alleged involvement in the bribery scheme, and his ultimate prosecution, to avoid further raising GOP hackles about the acquisition.
King and other Republicans who questioned the Uranium One deal in 2010 are once again asking the Justice Department, now run by Trump appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for more information about the FBI probe and Mikerin’s prosecution. Others implicated in the sweeping bribery scheme settled their cases with the government.
Specifically, Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) who has been questioning the deal since 2010, wants to know what information the Justice Department disclosed to CFIUS about the bribery probe.
"I am extremely disheartened and disturbed by recent reports indicating that CFIUS approved the Russia-Uranium One deal despite the fact that the Department of Justice, a member of CFIUS, possessed evidence of corruption by Russian nuclear energy officials in the United States," said the senator. "A full account of whether the Department adequately disclosed this evidence to CFIUS is critical to provide transparency to Congress and the American public."
Update 11:14 a.m.: This post has been updated with further information.