James Comey said it in March of 2017. Robert Mueller said it in March of 2019. DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said it again in December of 2019; and Sally Yates repeated it last week in her Senate Judiciary hearing testimony: “In 2016 the FBI initiated a Counterintelligence Investigation involving the Trump campaign.” These are honorable men and women with long careers serving their country; and yet while we await a full accounting from United States Attorney John Durham who is investigating the origins of Russian Collusion, the FBI investigation code-named Crossfire Hurricane (CH) and the ensuing Mueller Report was never a real “Counterintelligence Investigation.”
Counterintelligence or CI is a dark art of foreign policy – diplomacy by other means. Countries engage in intelligence collection in several ways, one of which is with an external security service like CIA in the U.S. and MI6 (or more formally the Secret Intelligence Service) in the U.K. These services dispatch officers (not agents, as is often misdescribed,) overseas to collect intelligence from assets or agents (used correctly in this vein) in a clandestine manner. The intelligence is sent back to a headquarters component where it is analyzed and put into reporting products for policy makers like the President, NSC, and the Secretaries of State and Defense here in the U.S. Adversaries, like the Russians, do the same thing.
Counterintelligence, as the name implies seeks to thwart the efforts of external intelligence agencies engaged in these intelligence operations. In the U.S., the FBI has the primary CI mission for identifying and obstructing foreign intelligence services seeking to collect against U.S. interests. Like foreign intelligence, CI is primarily for the use of policymakers, not policemen and prosecutors. Just like their siblings in foreign intelligence services, CI services produce CI products for policymakers to shape their decision making with foreign governments and leaders. With one notable exception, counterintelligence has nothing to do with criminal investigations.
That exception is espionage, which many practitioners will tell you represents the height of a counterintelligence failure. The FBI agent-turned-spy for Russia is the classic case of a counterintelligence failure because, for years, the FBI failed to stop the Russians from collecting intelligence against the U.S. by using one of their own FBI agents against them. In a perfect world, the FBI would have seen the efforts to recruit Hanssen (or Hanssen would have self-reported he was potentially being recruited, which was unlikely since we know Hanssen volunteered to the Russians,) and the FBI would have turned him into a double agent against them and fed them false information through Hanssen. Instead, it was a massive counterintelligence failure and Hanssen was prosecuted for espionage.
With that as a backdrop, let’s examine how Crossfire Hurricane was never a real counterintelligence investigation. There are several dates to focus on so let’s start with the first of several known events: In 2013, the FBI used Carter Page as a source of information to help identify potential Russian Intelligence Officers who were eventually expelled. This is significant because while by all accounts Page is a quirky guy, he would have immediately been flagged by any competent foreign intelligence service as someone who helped his own counterintelligence service identify and expel their foreign intelligence officer. We now know from IG Michael Horwitz’s report, and the Durham indictment of FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith this week, that Page was considered a “contact” of the CIA. He would never be trusted to become an asset or recruited agent of a foreign intelligence service who knew that first fact, like the Russians.
It was reported in July 2016 that the computer server(s) belonging to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had been breached and several sensitive communications may have been compromised. The breaches likely happened in 2015 and April of 2016. Later it would be alleged the Russian intelligence services were responsible for the breach, and the Muller team would go on to charge several Russian intelligence officers with crimes related to that breach.
The next suspicious event was a March 14, 2016 meeting between George Papadopoulos, who had recently been named a Trump campaign advisor, and Joseph Misfud in Rome. Much remains unknown about Misfud today, but allegedly during this meeting, Misfud told Papadopoulos the Russians had derogatory information on then Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. The Mueller Report claimed Mifsud had “contact with Russians,” but there is at least as much or more information in other reporting that he may have worked for western intelligence services. We will no doubt learn more from Durham, but it is safe to say Mifsud was not an intelligence officer of any country himself.
Then Papadopoulos had drinks in London with Alexander Downer, a senior Australian diplomat on in May of 2016. At this meeting with Downer, Papadopoulos is alleged to have repeated the Misfud information about the Russians having “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Downer was also not an intelligence officer. Next on the timeline Christopher Steele, a former British foreign intelligence officer, called an FBI contact of his who was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Rome about information he had developed on candidate Trump. He said he had found it troubling, and that he wanted to pass it along to the Bureau. This meeting with the FBI occurred in London on July 5th 2016.
The last important event on this timeline was when FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Peter Strzok traveled to London to follow up on the Downer-Papadopoulos meeting, and returned to FBIHQ. Then, on July 31, 2016, he authored an opening Electronic Communication (EC) titled “Crossfire Hurricane”, allegedly predicated on the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting. The FBI maintains, and there is no evidence to the contrary, that despite a lot happening in London during this timeframe, the Steele information provided to the Rome-based FBI agent in London, was unknown to Strzok and his team until several months later. This information would later become known as the Steele Dossier and is the topic of a future article.
This opening EC was captioned by Strzok as a FARA violation, or Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is a criminal investigation worked by the FBI, though it is often worked on counterintelligence squads. It alleges that a foreign source (that we now know is Downer) met with Papadopoulos, and at that meeting, there was allegedly the discussion about the Russians having information embarrassing to Clinton and Obama. The EC also puts this into the context of the DNC hack, which of course the Bureau already knew about. It was they themselves who reached out to the DNC on several occasions many months before to warn of a potential breach, and they made contact days before it was made public. So, the Bureau knew about a DNC hack, presumably by Russia, they heard via their agent assigned to London that Papadopoulos told Downer the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, and they drew a straight line between the two events? And they also opened a FARA violation investigation on Papadopoulos.
By calling it a FARA violation, Strzok was alleging Papadopoulos was acting as an agent of a foreign country without properly registering with the Department of Justice, something he never said in the EC. Importantly, Strzok did not title or allege in the communication that Papadopoulos was the subject of an espionage investigation, nor did he designate the communication in a manner alleging he was acting on behalf of a foreign intelligence power against the United States, which he could have done if that’s what he thought. (There are specific FBI classifications available to code an FBI communication to indicate what country is the subject of the investigation.)
Within weeks, Strzok would open three other sub-files to Crossfire Hurricane. He opened on Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, foreign policy advisor Carter Page, and national security advisor Michael Flynn. The fact that Downer was a member of a “friendly foreign government,” gave Strzok cover to classify the documents “Secret,” because such deliberations with foreign partners are always classified. Again, this was still not, and never actually became a counterintelligence investigation.
It is important to understand two things about FARA. First, the word “agent” is not used as a pejorative in the same manner as it is for the purposes of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In FISA, being a “agent of a foreign power” means you are alleged to be an intelligence or terrorism threat to the United States; in other words, a bad guy. Later we will see the FBI got a FISA warrant for Carter Page’s communications alleging he was an agent of a foreign power – Russia. (This was based almost solely on the Steele Dossier, which turned out to be bogus.)
With FARA, an agent is more akin to Tom Brady or Taylor Swift having agents – simply somebody who reps for you. K Street in Washington, D.C. is filled with lobbyists who rep for all sorts of entities including foreign governments. If you register as required by the statute, it is perfectly legal to be a foreign agent.
The second point is that FARA is a complicated statute with many requirements and just as many workarounds. Most of these K Street lobbyists do not, and have never, registered with DOJ as foreign agents when representing other governments, even though arguably in many cases they should. Violations of FARA have only been successfully prosecuted seven times in the almost 60-year history of the statute. Calling Crossfire Hurricane a FARA violation in the title of the opening communication, literally meant Strzok considered the targets to be in violation of the act requiring them to register with DOJ as foreign agents, and not necessarily counterintelligence threats. So, while the Bureau (and most of the intelligence community) professed (much later) to have a concern the government of Russia was attempting to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by using these four subjects, there is zero evidence in Strzok’s opening EC on July 31st of 2016 that was the case.
A significant missing element of an actual CI case here, is any known activity by real foreign intelligence officers. As noted above, even if Misfud was being run by the Russians, a sophisticated intelligence service would never delegate the recruitment of a potential asset (Papadopoulos) to another low-level asset/agent, (Mifsud). The same would be true for Manafort, Page (who we already said would never be a candidate for recruitment,) and Flynn. Nowhere, (with the notable exception of the Mueller team indicting several Russian GRU officers for the hack of the DNC server long after they took over the investigation from the FBI,) has there been evidence of actual foreign intelligence officers involved in Crossfire Hurricane.
Another characteristic of an actual counterintelligence investigation that never existed in CH was access to sensitive or classified intelligence by the alleged subjects. For a foreign intelligence service to be successful, they need to recruit spies with access to classified information. Although Flynn still had a Top-Secret clearance, he was mostly involved in commercial ventures with his own consulting firm, and none of the other three had clearances of access of any kind. One could argue that if Trump were to win, these four would have future access to classified intelligence. While this is potentially true, recall we have been credibly told all along that the goal of the Russian government was to get Trump, their preferred candidate, elected – not recruit spies.
How would any of the alleged activities by Papadopoulos, Page, Manafort, or Flynn, if they were being tasked or controlled by the Russian intelligence services, have contributed toward success in getting Trump elected? If the Russians already had dirt on Hillary Clinton, how does using a low-level agent (Misfud) telling Papadopoulos about this contribute toward their goals? It is not unforeseeable somebody like Papadopoulos might tell somebody like Downer, who might be friendly to the United States and who might warn them. Of course, this is exactly what happened. The safer play would have been to keep quiet and make the dirt public at a time when you think it can do the most damage to Clinton.
Manafort was alleged to be involved in shady business deals with Russians and Ukrainians; Flynn was merely alleged to have traveled to Moscow (a meeting he reported to the Department of Defense,) and we’ve talked about how useless it would be to recruit Page. How is any of this helpful toward Russian’s goal of getting Trump elected?
Another important point to consider is how the subjects of this investigation were handled once they came into the orbit of the FBI and the Special Counsel. As we noted, a classic technique of counterintelligence is to turn potentially recruited agents against the foreign service that is attempting to recruit them for the purposes of planting false intelligence. In this case, the FBI and the Special Counsel immediately confronted their targets with a variety of either old white-collar crimes (Manafort) or process crimes like lying to the FBI (Papadopoulos and Flynn,) or in the case of Page, (who recall, had previously cooperated with them,) they did nothing at all. (Except get a FISA warrant against him.)
In the case of Papadopoulos, he claims there is evidence the FBI sent an informant or asset now known as Stefan Halper, and another informant or undercover government agent allegedly named Azra Turk, to meet with him in London in September of 2016. He alleges the meeting was for the purpose of getting him to talk about the election, and how the Russians might be involved. According to Papadopoulos, the approach was awkward, with Ms. Turk attempting to flirt with him over drinks the night before the three of them met. He says at the meeting, he was questioned very directly about the Russians, to the point where he claims he ended the meeting and was upset at Halper and Turk. In an actual CI investigation, the FBI would have spent more time assessing Papadopoulos in low-risk settings (not in bars with seductresses on an initial meet,) rather than treating him as the subject of a criminal case for which they thus far, had zero evidence.
In the case of Flynn, we know the FBI conducted an ambush interview of him at the White House on January 24, 2017, after Trump had become president. It was allegedly on the pretext that he had a troubling discussion with the Russian ambassador after the election about sanctions that had been levied on Russia by Barack Obama. We later learned that General Flynn didn’t speak about sanctions at all, and instead had addressed the expulsion of diplomats. However, Strzok wrote in notes taken after a January 5, 2017 meeting with a closely held group, including Comey, acting Attorney General Yates, and the President that Comey had characterized Flynn’s call as “legit.”
Three weeks later, the day before the FBI interviewed Flynn, Assistant Director Bill Priestep speculated in his own notes about the goals of the interview, which included getting Flynn to lie for the purposes of prosecuting him or getting him fired. FBI and DOJ officials, including Yates, mused about charging Flynn with a violation of the Logan Act, a little known (and probably unconstitutional) law that makes it illegal for private citizens to negotiate with foreign governments. When the interview and the ensuing prosecution of Flynn by Mueller’s team for lying to the FBI fell apart a year later, defenders, including Yates in a recent hearing, defaulted back to the “counterintelligence” concerns about Flynn’s phone call as the predicate for the interview.
Finally, the best evidence the FBI never had a legitimate counterintelligence investigation with Crossfire Hurricane, was then Director Comey’s testimony in front of Congress on March 20, 2017, where he said he had been authorized by the Department of Justice to announce that the FBI had initiated a counterintelligence investigation on the Trump Campaign. (1) With everything we have just described about the nature, purpose, and goals of counterintelligence investigations, why in the world would the head of an internal security service officially announce a counterintelligence investigation? The very acknowledgment that you are “countering” an intelligence operation of your enemy, tells the enemy the jig is up and their operation over. Besides, if the goal of the Russians was to help elect Trump as we have been told by the Intelligence Community, that had already happened four months earlier. What intelligence was Comey countering by announcing this investigation?
The phrase “counterintelligence investigation” in the context of Crossfire Hurricane has always been a euphemism for “criminal investigation-light,” in the same way former Attorney General Loretta Lynch instructed Comey to refer to the Clinton email criminal investigation as a “matter.” The target of the investigation was always Donald Trump because as we have pointed out there is no credible evidence any of the four alleged subjects of CH did anything wrong from a counterintelligence perspective – none. A worse optic is that this was a political investigation targeting an unconventional presidential candidate who nobody thought would win. When he did, the race was on for the FBI to justify what they had done, and as Comey later admitted, get a Special Counsel appointed. Because who among us, much less a real estate developer from New York with a history of bankruptcies and business failures, could survive a rouges gallery of savvy federal prosecutors looking for evidence of any crimes? As it turned out, Trump survived that investigation too. Crossfire Hurricane was a lot of things, but an actual counterintelligence investigation was not one of them.
James M. Casey was a police officer and FBI agent for 32 years. He was assigned to the National Security Council in 2003 and 2004 and was a Section Chief in the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division for three years. He retired in 2012 as the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville Division, and is President of FCS Global Advisors, a private investigative and crisis management firm.