Federal prosecutors say they’ve interviewed about two dozen witnesses, including former FBI officials, in the government’s probe of the origins of the FBI’s Russian investigation, according to a story in today’s New York Times.
Attorney General William Barr, who requested the investigation, is trying to discover the basis for the FBI’s surveillance of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election and whether it was politically motivated by anti-Trump, pro-Clinton officials.
U.S. attorney John Durham has apparently made more progress in his investigation than observers previously thought.
Durham’s review was not opened as a criminal investigation, meaning that the prosecutor is not able to subpoena witnesses or documents, although the Times reported that it is not clear whether the investigation’s status has changed.
The Times reported that at one point, Strzok, who opened the Russia inquiry after a tip by the Australian government, was the focus of the current review. Investigators reportedly asked about the tip, which said that Russia had offered information on Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign.
Durham also reportedly asked witnesses about Christopher Steele, a former British spy who had compiled a dossier of allegations about Trump that was used to obtain a warrant application that ended up permitting the FBI wiretap a member of the Trump campaign in 2016.
One former official reportedly said that he rebuked the idea that officials sought to damage Trump’s candidacy.
The person reportedly contrasted the public handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 with the secret investigation into the Trump campaign before the election.
Durham’s witness list is interesting.
The prosecutor conducting the review, Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, has expressed his intent to interview a number of current and former intelligence officials involved in examining Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including former CIA Director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, Brennan told NBC News.
Durham has also requested to talk to CIA analysts involved in the intelligence assessment of Russia’s activities, prompting some of them to hire lawyers, according to three former CIA officials familiar with the matter. And there is tension between the CIA and the Justice Department over what classified documents Durham can examine, two people familiar with the matter said.
With Barr’s approval, Durham has expanded his staff and the timeframe under scrutiny, according to a law enforcement official directly familiar with the matter. And he is now looking into conduct past Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, a Trump administration official said.
What exactly is Barr looking for? Of course, some of the people who investigated the Trump campaign for collusion hated and feared Trump. But is it criminal conduct for FBI officials to conduct a biased investigation? If some kind of conspiracy was afoot, that would make a difference. So far, Durham hasn’t even opened a criminal investigation.
It’s not likely that Durham will get very far in investigating the CIA. So much of the Russian intel is classified that he would need to open a criminal investigation so that he could issue subpoenas to see the documents.
There have been questions suggesting that the Justice Department inspector general is perfectly capable of handling such an investigation, Barr doesn’t think so.
But Barr has said he believes an IG inquiry is not sufficient to answer the questions he has about how the investigation began. In doing so, he made comments suggesting Durham had authority only a criminal investigation could provide.
In a May 31 interview with CBS News, Barr said Horowitz “doesn’t have the power to compel testimony, he doesn’t have the power really to investigate beyond the current cast of characters at the Department of Justice. His ability to get information from former officials or from other agencies outside the department is very limited.”
Basing FISA warrants on the scurrilous Steele Dossier would be criminal if it could be proved the FBI knew the document was inaccurate but requested the surveillance of the Trump campaign anyway. But that would be enormously difficult to prove given the FBI’s own admission they had not been able to confirm some of the dossier’s substance. That’s a lot different than admitting lying to a FISA judge.
There’s a lot of smoke in this investigation, but not much fire to find.