What Barr Should Already Know About the Origins of the Russia Investigation

Attorney General William Barr has made it clear that he is looking into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation. During his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said that “he is ‘working to try to reconstruct’ the beginning of the investigation” and whether there was any “overreach” by the FBI in launching the probe that began in the summer of 2016.

In previous testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Barr claimed that “spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that.”

If the attorney general has actually read the Mueller report, he might have noted that the special counsel addressed that question in a footnote to the portion of Volume I dedicated to contacts between Trump foreign policy advisor Georg Papadopoulos and Joseph Misfud, specifically their meeting on April 26, 2016.

During that meeting, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had met with high-level Russian government officials during his recent trip to Moscow. Mifsud also said that, on the trip, he learned that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on candidate Hillary Clinton. As Papadopoulos later stated to the FBI, Mifsud said that the “dirt” was in the form of “emails of Clinton,” and that they “have thousands of emails.”464 On May 6, 2016, 10 days after that meeting with Mifsud, Papadopoulos suggested to a representative of a foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.465

Footnote 465 on page 89 of the report reads:

This information is contained in the FBI case-opening document and related materials…The foreign government conveyed this information to the U.S. government on July 26, 2016, a few days after WikiLeaks’s release of Clinton-related emails. The FBI opened its investigation of potential coordination between Russia and the Trump Campaign a few days later based on the information.

Just to be clear, here is the timeline described by those paragraphs:

April 26 – Misfud tells Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails.

May 6 – Papadopoulos tells the representative of a foreign government that the Trump campaign knows that the Russian government could assist their efforts with the release of the “dirt” they had on Clinton.

July 22 – WikiLeaks begins releasing documents stolen from the DNC.

July 26 – The foreign government tells the U.S. about their representative’s conversation with Papadopoulos.

July 31 – The FBI opens its investigation.

That is the timeline that the FBI has consistently given for how the investigation was launched. But to protect the intelligence services of our allies, it doesn’t relay the weight of evidence that had already accumulated.

Beginning as early as late 2015, British intelligence told the CIA about suspicious “interactions” between people connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents. Over the next six months, the CIA heard similar warnings from Germany, Estonia, Poland, and the Dutch-French intelligence service DGSE. The information about Papadopoulos and Misfud in late July came on the heels of all of that intelligence.

By then, Papadopoulos was actually the fourth member of the Trump campaign with suspicious ties to Russia. Also included were Paul Manafort, who was enlisted as campaign chair, as well as Michael Flynn and Carter Page. The Mueller report documents the ways in which all four of these men were recruited by Russian intelligence—most of which was known by the CIA and FBI in the summer of 2016.

As Greg Miller documented in his book, The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy, those were some of the things that led former CIA Director John Brennan to write his own dossier and ring alarm bells within a small group at the White House.

By early August, the sense of alarm had become so acute that CIA Director John Brennan called White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. “I need to get in to see the president,” Brennan said, with unusual urgency in his voice.

Brennan had just spent two days sequestered in his office reviewing a small mountain of material on Russia…There were piles of finished assessments, but Brennan had also ordered up what agency veterans call the “raw stuff” — unprocessed material from informants, listening devices, computer implants and other sources. Clearing his schedule, Brennan pored over all of it…

Brennan’s review session occurred against the backdrop of these unsettling developments. But his call to the White House was driven by something else — extraordinary intelligence that had surfaced in late July and reached deep inside the Kremlin, showing that Putin was himself directing an “active measures” operation aimed not only at disrupting the U.S. presidential race but electing Trump.

That aligns with previous reporting from the Washington Post.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

Around that same time, Brennan held a series of urgent briefings for the Gang of Eight on these concerns about Russia’s interference in the election in support of Trump, which is when Senator Harry Reid wrote a letter to then-FBI Director James Comey asking him to open an investigation. Once Clinton and Trump were declared the nominees and cleared for intelligence briefings in August, both campaigns were briefed about potential espionage threats from Russia.

Trump and his enablers repeatedly suggest that it was the Steele dossier that launched the FBI’s investigation. But as Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee made clear, “the investigative team only received Steele’s reporting in mid-September,” more than seven weeks after the probe began.

That is what we already know about the origins of the Russia investigation. It is important to have it documented for two reasons. First of all, Barr has access to all of this information—and probably more—about what was setting off alarm bells in our intelligence services. As a matter of fact, our allies were concerned that it actually took so long for them to react.

The Guardian has been told the FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow ahead of the US election. This was in part due to US law that prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of American citizens without warrants. “They are trained not to do this,” the source stressed.

“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” the source added. “They [the European agencies] were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents. You should be wary of this.’

The second reason it is important to document what actually transpired is that it will provide a template against which to compare Barr’s conclusions. If, as we have seen over the last few weeks, the attorney general attempts to spin a narrative about something nefarious in the origins of this investigation in order to protect Donald Trump, that will be made obvious by a comparison to the facts.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.