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Kevin Clinesmith Guilty Plea: Connecting the Dots

J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building in Washington, D.C. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

Some interesting things to note about the false-statements charge which former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith is pleading guilty today.

Criminal Information Charging False Statements

The charge is contained in a criminal information. That is a form of formal allegation the Justice Department uses when a defendant agrees to waive indictment (i.e., forego his right to have the grand jury find probable cause to charge a crime). It is often, but by no means always, used in connection with a defendant who is pleading guilty under a cooperation agreement.

We will know more about the terms under which the negotiated plea is being entered when Clinesmith appears in court. Federal law requires that all material understandings attendant to a guilty plea be disclosed to the judge.

The charge is false statements under Section 1001(a)(3) of the federal penal code. That provision makes it a crime knowingly and willfully to make and use a false writing or document, aware that it contains a materially false entry of some kind. It is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.

Background to the Charge

In a nutshell, Clinesmith was an FBI assistant general counsel assigned to the Bureau’s National Security and Cyber Law branch at headquarters in Washington, D.C. He worked there from mid July 2015 until he was terminated last year, shortly before the Justice Department Inspector General Report detailing his misconduct. His responsibilities included providing support to agents working on investigations, including “Crossfire Hurricane” — the Bureau’s Trump-Russia investigation that was formally opened in late July 2016. Crossfire Hurricane was both an investigation in its own right and an umbrella for four related sub-investigations, one of which focused on Carter Page, an American citizen and Trump campaign adviser.

One of Clinesmith’s duties was to help agents prepare applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for warrants that authorize eavesdropping and other monitoring of suspected agents of foreign powers. The FBI submitted four applications for 90-day FISA warrants on Page. The first warrant was issued in 2016, on October 21 (i.e., less than three weeks before the 2016 election). Three renewal warrants were issued on January 12, April 7, and June 29 — the last one expiring on September 22, 2017 (i.e., eight months into the Trump administration).

On August 17, 2016, before the FBI sought the initial FISA warrant, what the criminal information describes as an “Other Government Agency (OGA)” provided “certain members of the Crossfire Hurricane team” with a memo. The OGA has been identified in other reporting as the CIA. The August 17 memo indicated that Page (described as “Individual #1”) had been approved as an “operational contact” for the CIA from 2008 to 2013. The memo elaborated that Page had provided information “concerning [his] prior contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers.”

The charge states that “the first three FISA applications did not include [Page’s] history or status with the [CIA].” Though the criminal information does not say so (no reason it would), this must be a significant aspect of the continuing investigation by Connecticut U.S. attorney John Durham: Why did the Crossfire Hurricane team fail to inform the FISA court? More to the point, why did the Bureau continue to seek FISA warrants against Page on the theory that he was a clandestine agent of Russia when it had been told that he had worked as a covert informant for the CIA against Russia?

Comparing the Schiff Memo

Also, remember the Schiff memo? That is the farcical January 29, 2018, document produced by House Democrats, under the direction of Representative Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), then the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member (now its chairman), in an effort to refute the January 18, 2018, Nunes memo — the memo produced by committee Republicans, under the direction of then chairman (now ranking member) Devin Nunes (R., Calif.).

The Nunes memo contended that the FBI’s surveillance of Page was essentially baseless and materially dependent on the bogus Steele dossier. In an effort to rebut that claim, the Schiff memo highlighted pre-dossier information: “Page’s past relationships with Russian spies.”

“In fact,” Schiff maintained, “the FBI interviewed Page in March 2016 about his contact with Russian intelligence, the very month Donald Trump named him a foreign-policy adviser.” Nowhere did the now chairman of the Intelligence Committee mention that Page had been reporting his past relationships with Russian spies to the CIA as an operational source. To the contrary, those past relationships were emphasized as a basis, independent of the Steele dossier, to believe that Page and, indeed, the Trump campaign and Donald Trump himself, were in cahoots with the Putin regime.

Schiff elaborated:

Page’s Connections to Russian Government and Intelligence Officials: The FBI had an independent basis [from the Steele dossier] for investigating Page’s motivations and actions during the campaign, transition, and following the inauguration. [Bold and underlining in original.] As DOJ described in detail to the Court, Page an extensive record as [about one line is redacted] [footnote omitted] prior to joining the Trump campaign. . . . As early as [a reference to the year is redacted], a Russian intelligence officer [redacted] targeted Page for recruitment. Page showed [about a line and half is redacted.]

Page remained on the radar of Russian intelligence and the FBI. [Bold in original.] In 2013, prosecutors indicted three other Russian spies, two of whom targeted Page for recruitment. The FBI also interviewed Page multiple times about his Russian intelligence contacts, including in March 2016.[Footnote omitted.] The FBI’s concern about and knowledge of Pages’ activities therefore long predate the FBI’s receipt of Steele’s information. [Underlining in original.]

It would be interesting to know what Page told the Bureau about his contacts with Russian intelligence. Did he inform agents that he’d been giving information to the CIA? Did the FBI know that from both the agency and Page himself before it began seeking the FISA warrants?

Strangely, as I’ve noted several times (see, e.g., here), when the FBI and the Justice Department filed charges against the Russian spies, they incorporated information from Page — and added the fact that one spy who tried to recruit Page described him as an “idiot.” Yet this information, too, went unmentioned in Congressman Schiff’s memo. There is, moreover, no indication that the information was included in the FISA warrant application, which argued that Page was knowingly working for Russia against the United States and on behalf of the Trump campaign.

Clinesmith Doctors a Key Email

After media leaks about Chistopher Steele’s anti-Trump investigation (on behalf of the Clinton campaign), then the publication of the Steele dossier, Page protested his portrayal as a possible spy for Russia. He publicly and vehemently insisted that he had assisted the U.S. government against Russia in the past.

As the criminal information against Clinesmith recounts, in June 2017, the FBI was preparing the fourth FISA warrant. Page’s protestations prompted one of the Crossfire Hurricane agents — a supervisory special agent (SSA) who is not identified in the criminal information — to ask Clinesmith about these claims. It was especially important for the SSA to know because the SSA was to be the affiant on the sworn FISA warrant application. The SSA asked Clinesmith: Had Page ever been a “source” for the CIA?

On June 15, Clinesmith contacted a CIA liaison, asking whether Page was ever “a source in any capacity.” As summarized in the criminal information, the CIA liaison responded by listing documents, including the aforementioned August 17 memo, that the CIA had previously provided to “certain members of the Crossfire Hurricane team.” The criminal information then quotes the CIA liaison: “My recollection is that [Page] was or is . . . [digraph] but the [documents] will explain the details.” The “digraph” is a two-letter designation that the CIA uses to describe an American citizen, such as Page, who has been approved by the CIA to have “operational contact” with a foreign power.

One June 19, while still running down details in preparation to be the affiant on the fourth FISA warrant, the SSA sent an instant message to Clinesmith, asking whether he’d gotten an update on whether Page had been a CIA source. Clinesmith responded that he’d learned Page was a “subsource” and “was never a source.” The criminal information does not explain what is meant by “subsource,” but the assertion that Page had never been a source was false. So was Clinesmith’s additional emphatic assertion that the CIA “confirmed explicitly he [Page] was never a source.”

Clinesmith was told that the SSA wanted that in writing. Clinesmith replied that he would forward to the SSA the email exchange he had just had with the CIA. But before forwarding it, Clinesmith doctored it.

As I describe above, in the actual email, the CIA liaison said:

My recollection is that [Page] was or is . . . [digraph] but the [documents] will explain the details.

Clinesmith altered it (as I now highlight in bold italics) to say:

My recollection is that [Page] was or is … [digraph] and not a source but the [documents] will explain the details.

This false writing is the gravamen of the false statements charge.

Flimsy Counterintelligence or Flimsy Criminal Investigation?

One more aspect of the charge filed by U.S. Attorney Durham is intriguing. He describes the Bureau’s Trump-Russia probe as a criminal investigation from the start:

On July 31, 2016, the FBI opened a Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”) investigation known as Crossfire Hurricane into whether individual(s) associated with the Donald Trump for President Campaign were witting of and/or coordinating activities with the Russian government.

Yet, when then FBI director James Comey (quite stunningly) acknowledged the investigation in March 2017 public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, he described it as a counterintelligence investigation:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.

Emphasis added.

Comey subsequently added, “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.” As I have previously countered, that is not exactly right. The Justice Department generally considers it an abuse if counterintelligence surveillance authorities (which do not require proof of probable cause of a criminal-law violation) are exploited to steer criminal investigations (which do). What I believed Comey was referring to is the unremarkable fact that, if in the course of a legitimate non-criminal investigation, agents stumble upon criminal conduct, they are not required to ignore it. But it is not a regular aspect of a counterintelligence investigation to assess the intelligence gathered to determine whether crimes were committed.

Based on disclosures of documents generated by the investigation, as well as DOJ inspector-general reports, we now know that the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane as both a criminal and a counterintelligence investigation. The charge filed by Durham today does not mention counterintelligence, even though FISA surveillance is derived from counterintelligence authorities. By contrast, Comey in his testimony framed the probe as a counterintelligence investigation; he only mentioned an assessment of possible criminal activity in passing, and did not mention FARA at all.

We can surmise why this is so.

As I related in Ball of Collusion, at the time the Trump-Russia investigation was being conducted, FARA had nearly never been regarded as grist for criminal prosecution. In the half century preceding its sudden invocation by Mueller prosecutors, the Justice Department had only charged FARA seven times, with just three convictions. Instead, it was DOJ practice to encourage people doing work for covered foreign powers or entities to comply with the law, not to indict them for failure to do so.

If an incumbent administration is going to authorize an investigation of its political opposition, there must be serious, compelling grounds — otherwise, that is Watergate-style interference in our democratic process. It is thus astonishing that the Obama administration would open a criminal investigation against its political opposition based on statutes that were not generally regarded as serious, prosecutable crimes.

In the Trump-Russia investigation, the FBI resorted to FARA and the even more absurd Logan Act (in connection with Michael Flynn), which is prosecuted even less frequently than FARA — never a single indictment in the history of the Justice Department. Otherwise, the FBI relied on FISA, on the premise that Trump campaign officials, and the campaign itself, were clandestine agents of Russia, complicit in the Kremlin’s cyberespionage. This outlandish claim was supported by scant evidence and Democratic Party opposition research. Durham’s continuing investigation is trying to establish how and why that happened.

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California AG Charges Husband of LA Prosecutor for Pulling Gun on BLM Activists

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed charges against the husband of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey for pulling a gun on Black Lives Matter activists in March, according to a charging document published on Tuesday.

David Lacey was charged with three counts of assault with a firearm, a misdemeanor, according to the document (pdf), which was filed in the Superior Court of California on Monday.

Jackie Lacey’s office directed The Epoch Times to her campaign and David Lacey’s lawyer, neither of whom immediately responded to inquiries.

The incident unfolded in March at the Lacey’s home.

Melina Abdullah, who helped found Black Lives Matter LA, and other activists approached the house around 5:40 a.m. and knocked on the door. They were met by David Lacey, who Abdullah said “pulled a gun and pointed it at my chest.”

In video footage the activist shared, David Lacey appears to brandish a gun while saying, “Get off of my porch. I will shoot you.”

After a woman asks him to tell Jackie Lacey “that we’re here,” he added, “I don’t care who you are, get off my porch.”

He said he was going to call the police.

Jackie Lacey told reporters at a press conference following the incident that she and her husband called the police and weren’t sure what was happening.

“While I was upstairs, he ran downstairs. I could hear him talking to somebody. He came back up later and he said, ‘there are protesters outside the house, and I pulled my gun, and I asked them to leave.’”

Jackie Lacey said she does not believe it is “fair, or right,” for activists to show up at people’s homes, and the incident wasn’t the first time it happened.

Offers to meet with Black Lives Matter were rejected, the district attorney said, accusing activists of wanting to embarrass or intimidate her.

David Lacey was “profoundly sorry” and did not mean anyone any harm, his wife said.

“I, too, am sorry if anybody was harmed,” she said. “It’s never my intent to harm any protester. I just want to live in peace and do my job.”

Black Lives Matter LA didn’t respond to a request for comment. In a social media statement, the group shared a story about David Lacey being charged, using the hashtag “#JackieLaceyMustGo.”

The Los Angeles Police Department presented the case to Becerra’s office in April to avoid Lacey’s office having to prosecute the district attorney’s husband.

Lacey, the county’s first black district attorney, is facing a challenge from former San Francisco district attorney George Gascón. Lacey saw Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Laura Friedman, a state assemblywoman, withdraw their endorsements in June.

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Intelligence disputes fuel rare public acrimony among Gang of Eight

The in-fighting has intensified so rapidly that Rubio even suggested this week that his committee’s annual hearing on global threats might not go on as planned, citing “heavy politicization.” The hearings allows members of the House and Senate intelligence panels to hear directly from the heads of the CIA, NSA and other agencies about the dangers posed by countries like Russia, Iran and China.

“It’s become harder to get to an agreement on a forum that doesn’t turn into a political circus,” Rubio said.

“Why would a career professional intelligence official at any level at this point want to be dragged into being turned into a political pretzel to further the narrative of one side or the other?” he added. “You would hope intelligence matters could be above it, but right now it isn’t.”

As the election nears, concerns about Russian interference via Ukrainian actors are reaching a crescendo among Democrats, who see an ongoing effort by the Kremlin to damage presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Recent revelations about Moscow’s intentions are causing Democrats to push the Trump administration for more direct, specific statements about the foreign-influence campaign.

Democrats have even suggested that senior intelligence officials might be facing politically motivated pressure on what to say in public statements, and when to say it, so as to not anger President Donald Trump.

The fundamental disagreement between the Democratic and Republican sides of the Gang of Eight centers on how much information about foreign threats should be made public. While Democrats have urged more transparency, Republicans have warned about the potentially dangerous precedent that would set. As a result, the Democratic and Republican sides of the group have issued dueling statements and demands on subjects on which they are normally unified.

In 2016, the group clashed over whether to issue a statement denouncing Russia early on for its interference in the presidential campaign. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a Gang of Eight member, reportedly refused to sign onto it, and the statement was never released.

The latest dispute began after the Democratic half of the Gang of Eight, which includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), released a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray last week demanding a briefing for all lawmakers centering on unspecified threats to the integrity of the 2020 election.

POLITICO later reported that those threats mentioned in a separate classified letter included concerns about Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) investigations targeting Biden and his son, and efforts by Russian-aligned Ukrainians to influence GOP lawmakers with Kremlin-backed disinformation. Johnson has since responded to the claims, accusing Democrats in a scathing new letter of running their own disinformation campaign to undermine and discredit his investigations.

Republicans dismissed the Democratic letter as a partisan effort and said they were never asked to join the Democrats’ calls for a congressional briefing. Democrats have a political incentive to speak up, given that their presidential candidate is allegedly the target of a Russian disinformation campaign.

The House Intelligence Committee voted on Wednesday to give all House members access to the classified portion of the Democrats’ letter to Wray.

Biden last week threatened to hold the Kremlin and other foreign governments accountable for any interference if he is elected president, reflecting a growing concern not only about Trump’s unwillingness to commit to not accepting foreign help in the election, but also about what his campaign and members of Congress view as an escalating disinformation campaign emerging out of Ukraine.

Later in the week, William Evanina, the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and the country’s top counterintelligence official, released a “100 days” statement on Friday warning of foreign election interference. This statement became yet another point of contention between Democrats and Republicans on the Gang of Eight.

“With just over 100 days until the election, it is imperative that we also share insights with the American public about foreign threats to our election and offer steps to citizens across the country to build resilience and help mitigate these threats,” the statement read.

It cited unspecified influence operations and disinformation campaigns being waged by China, Russia, and Iran and encouraged Americans “to consume information with a critical eye,” “practice good cyber hygiene and media literacy” and “report suspicious election-related activity to authorities.”

The statement provoked an immediate reaction from Democratic half of the Gang of Eight — which also includes House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — who along with their Republican counterparts had been briefed by Evanina on the foreign interference intelligence two days earlier.

Some Democrats were skeptical to begin with about the usefulness of a 100-days statement, said people familiar with their thinking, and urged Evanina to be specific about the Russia threat if he insisted on making public comments about the interference campaign. They were ultimately disappointed and thought the statement failed to reflect the acuteness of the Russians’ efforts that Evanina had conveyed to the Gang of Eight privately, the people said.

That led the Democratic half of the Gang of Eight to issue another joint statement, slamming Evanina’s declaration as “so generic as to be almost meaningless” and giving “a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal intent, motivation and capability together.”

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), who supported Evanina’s Senate confirmation to his current role, suggested that Evanina might be facing politically motivated pressure on what to say in public statements.

“I think [Evanina] is somebody who really wants to do the right thing,” Warner said. “I think there’s pressure inside the administration about how much information to reveal. … I want to make sure that he is fully empowered to do his job, which means we need to make sure the Senate and the American public are informed.”

Representatives for Warner and Schumer declined to comment on the senators’ interactions with Evanina.

Rubio and McConnell quickly pushed back on the Democrats’ characterization of Evanina’s statement, calling their response an attack that “baselessly impugns” Evanina’s character “and politicizes intelligence matters.”

The back-and-forth only helps adversaries trying to exploit partisan divisions in the U.S., while depriving the intelligence community of comprehensive oversight, said former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who was a member of the Gang of Eight in his capacity as House Intelligence Committee chairman from 2011-2015.

“The truth is we have nation states who are looking at this dysfunction and engaging in activities that could threaten our election and they’re not going to pick a team,” Rogers said. “When the committees get this dysfunctional and when these people decide to litigate in public, you have to ask yourself, who are they helping?”

“You don’t try to fight out these issues in dueling press releases,” Rogers said. “You bring it up in a classified setting. And this is exactly why the IC isn’t getting proper oversight — no one in the community wants to brief these committees because it’s a revolving door to the public.”

Martin Matishak contributed to this report.

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Op-Ed: America’s coronavirus crisis needs a 9/11 Commission

COVID-19 has altered the course of our nation’s history in so many ways. Even as we fight to bring the virus under control and save lives, we are also aware that our country will be feeling the effects of the pandemic for years and possibly decades to come. It isn’t enough to beat the virus, we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes so we can be better prepared in the future.

This pandemic has devastated communities across America. As this piece gets posted, nearly 4 million Americans have been confirmed as infected, and more than 140,000 have died. Our home state of California is particularly hard hit, with most of the state seeing a renewed surge of cases and hospitalizations.

The economic devastation, too, is of historic proportions. Tens of millions are unemployed or under-employed. The unemployment rate skyrocketed from 3.5% earlier this year to 11% today, and many of those who were laid off won’t get their old jobs back.

And unfortunately, we are still in what the scientists say is the first wave of this devastating virus. In other words, it will likely continue to get worse before it gets better. Many regions of the U.S. reopened too soon or with insufficient safeguards — such as universal masking and adequate distancing leading to the exact increase in infections and deaths that health experts warned us about.

We all have to take steps now to contain this virus to save lives and let people get back to school and work safely, but it’s not too early to start planning for the next virus, and that starts with examining how we got here. That’s why we introduced legislation in the Senate and the House to ensure a comprehensive review of the action, and inaction, that led us to this crisis point.

After the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans demanded action, but they also demanded answers. Answers about how the attacks took place, what we missed, and what we needed to do better to secure our nation from terrorist threats.

In the wake of that tragedy, Americans, and especially the families of those who we lost, supported a truly comprehensive review of the attacks. Congress passed legislation in 2002 to create the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The commission’s work was independent, impartial and thorough. The country suffered from many of same partisan divides we have today, but the commission didn’t seek to assign blame to score political points. It simply got to work to ensure we could prevent future tragic events.

The 9/11 Commission’s hearings were deemed invaluable in explaining to the American people how those attacks came about, and its recommendations were widely respected and largely implemented. For example, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center — two essential components of the U.S. intelligence community — were created as a direct result of the commission’s findings and recommendations.

We are presented with a similar opportunity today, a chance to look back, so that we can move forward together.

To that end, our legislation would create a bipartisan commission that would begin work in 2021. It would rigorously examine U.S. government preparedness in advance of this pandemic, as well as the federal government’s response, complementing other oversight efforts in Congress. The commission would provide recommendations to improve our ability to respond to and recover from future pandemics.

And importantly, the commission would hold open hearings, as the 9/11 Commission did, to obtain information to provide a full accounting to the president, Congress and the American people of the facts and circumstances related to the outbreak in the United States. We need a firmer grasp on the best information, not as a political exercise to cast blame, but to learn from our mistakes so we can prevent the problems we now face from being tragically repeated. It is our hope that Congress and the White House, this one or a future one, would share a similar desire to enact legislation to establish a COVID-19 commission in support of our nation’s health and welfare.

The nation’s response to the pandemic presents us with an opportunity to learn what has worked, and what hasn’t. An honest analysis is the only way to adequately prepare for the next novel virus or another disaster. An effective response can save lives, but designing it requires a transparent reckoning with all the facts.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein is the senior senator from California. Democrat Adam Schiff represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the House of Representatives.

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As Fauci disagrees with Trump on virus, White House takes aim

In a statement Saturday, a White House official told CNN that “several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things.” The official went on to provide a lengthy list of examples, citing Fauci’s comments early in the pandemic and linking to past interviews.

These bullet points, which resembled opposition research on a political opponent, included Fauci downplaying the virus early on and a quote from March when Fauci said, “People should not be walking around with masks,” among other comments.

The move by the White House comes as President Donald Trump and Fauci are not speaking. The tension between the two men has grown publicly as the two have responded to one another through interviews and statements.

Fauci did not return a request for comment by CNN.

In a recent series of newspaper and radio interviews, Fauci — who has worked under six US presidents from both parties — has at times openly disagreed with Trump.

“As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not,” Fauci said in one interview. In another, Fauci responded to the President’s claim that “99%” of coronavirus cases in the United States were “totally harmless,” saying he didn’t know where the President got the number, and suggesting Trump’s interpretation was “obviously not the case.”

Trump has taken to publicly criticizing Fauci on national television.

“Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes,” Trump said last week, undermining the public health expert whom Americans say in polls they trust more than the President.

In recent interviews, he openly questioned the advice he’d received from Fauci at the start of the outbreak.

“I think we are in a good place. I disagree with him,” Trump said in an interview Tuesday when questioned about Fauci’s assertion the US is still “knee-deep in the first wave” of the pandemic.

One senior administration official told CNN that some officials within the White House do not trust Fauci. According to the source, those officials think Fauci doesn’t have the best interest of the President, pointing to interviews where he openly disagrees with what Trump has said.

Other administration officials have told CNN that while they have disagreements with Fauci’s methods, they don’t doubt his motives, and that his only concern was public health.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said Sunday evening that any effort by the White House to sideline or discredit Fauci is “just atrocious.”
Schiff told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” that such a move “is so characteristic of Donald Trump. He can’t stand the fact that the American people trust Dr. Fauci and they don’t trust Donald Trump — and so he has to tear him down.”

“We need people more than ever to speak truth to power, to be able to level with the American people about what we’re facing with this pandemic, how to get it under control, how to protect ourselves and our families,” Schiff continued. “That’s what Dr. Fauci has been trying to do and by sidelining him the President is once again interfering with an effective response to this pandemic.”

Kathleen Sebelius, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under former President Barack Obama, told CNN efforts to discredit Fauci and other scientists are “potentially very, very dangerous” as the US and other countries work toward a coronavirus vaccine.

“I think people want to know from the scientists that the vaccine is safe, that it is effective, that it will not do more harm than good,” she told Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”

“And if the public scientists have been discredited, if the President says ‘don’t believe them, you can’t listen to them, they’re often wrong,’ we have then undermined a national vaccination campaign which is an essential step to bringing this horrible period to an end.”

In response to questions about the White House appearing to actively discredit Fauci, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo, said there was no White House-versus-the scientists narrative, and provided a statement.

“We have great faith in the capacity of all of our scientists and doctors on the coronavirus taskforce to impart necessary public health information. People like Admiral (Brett) Giroir, Surgeon General (Jerome) Adams and others are carrying these messages very effectively,” Caputo said in the statement, although he did not directly answer questions about Fauci.

This story has been updated with comments from Rep. Adam Schiff and Kathleen Sebelius.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this story.

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The ultimate reason why there’s no there there in the ‘Russian bounties’ narrative

Taliban fighters. AP video

Spoiler up front: the reason is that the proposition – that it’s some kind of administration black eye in terms of taking care of the troops – is militarily incongruous.  We don’t need special indications that Russians (or Iranians, or anyone else) are offering bounties on the U.S. troops deployed in active combat zones, to be alert and proactive about force defense in those zones.

We’re already alert and proactive.

Such information is supplemental (and it was provided to the forces in-country on an unconfirmed basis).  It doesn’t change the basic operational posture.

This is especially the case given that we’ve already known for years that bounties are likely to be offered on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.  U.S. forces haven’t spent one day in the last decade under the misapprehension that no one could possibly be offering bounties on our troops in AfPak (or Syria, for that matter).

Trending: Cartoon of the Day: Americas Freedoms Matter

Before going further, let’s take a listen to a blessedly non-politicized briefing from Military Times (in its weekly “Briefing” video) about the Russian bounties narrative.  It’s the first brief in the package, starting about 40 seconds in.

Kudos to Military Times for delivering the only brief, cogent, spin-free summary I’ve seen of the “Russian bounties” proposition to date.  The first item reviewed is whether the intelligence was valid.  The second is what the response has been.

Here is the money passage:

The second component is when did the White House know about this, and have they done anything.  We’ve seen reports that say at least as early as March, maybe February or even 2019, the president was briefed, had some knowledge of Russia targeting U.S. troops.  But didn’t act and make any public announcements, didn’t issue any new orders to the Department of Defense.  So, both of those things are what lawmakers are concerned about right now: is it true, and did we do enough to react to it when we found out?

Military Times Deputy Editor Leo Shane goes on to say that lawmakers are tying their concern to the U.S. casualties in Afghanistan over the past year.

The “is it true?” question remains unanswered.  If there’s continuing doubt about it, that tells me it is not a slam-dunk, but rather a piece of information that has yet to be validated or corroborated.  In other words, the source itself is not considered demonstrably reliable or definitive, and however old the original information is, it hasn’t been corroborated by other intelligence or subsequent events.

(I also note that not one member of Congress commenting on the briefing about the information – from the CIA this past week – has said anything in public at all about the validity of the information.  The void of color or opinion in that regard has been noteworthy.  It tells its own tale; one thing it tells us is that the CIA didn’t say it was likely to be valid.  But for some reason, even Republicans haven’t been anxious to put down emphatic markers that it’s unconfirmed.  They’re just not talking, and – even more informatively – neither is anyone else.  Curiously, moreover, when you actually listen to each public comment by a Republican, the reference to being angry at Putin turns out to be a generic one, on principle – which is perfectly valid – and not an implication that the “Russian bounties” information per se has been verified.)

The operational issue

The important point, however, is that what we’re talking about is a foreign power allegedly offering bounties to terrorist militants to attack and kill U.S. service members deployed in a combat zone.

How are the terrorists (in this case, the Taliban) going to do that?  Using the same methods they use when they’re attacking U.S. service members for their own purposes.  In other words, doing the things we’re already on the watch for 24/7, and have rules of engagement for.

There’s another consideration, which is the question whether a foreign power offering bounties would also offer intelligence and weapons to the Taliban to help them score bounties.  Believe me, the president doesn’t have to order anyone to pursue that consideration.  The military already knows enough to start tracking that down immediately, even on yet-to-be-validated information.  It has no need to ask permission, and no purpose for doing so.

When National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke this past week of the military commanders being briefed on the unconfirmed Russian-bounties information, that’s the kind of thing they were assuring Americans had been triggered like clockwork.

The “bounty schedule,” if you will – i.e., how much is being paid for what types of kills or damage – would also be informative, if known.  It would speak to the level of incentive, and shape predictions about the kinds of attacks that would be most likely.

But the Taliban already have and use IEDs of various kinds, with an extensive history of tactical deployment for them; and they have the capability of rocket and mortar attacks, as well as short-range/low-level anti-air attacks.  Virtually all the rocket, mortar, and short-range air attacks in the hot-spots of Asia and the Middle East are made with former-Soviet weaponry (in original or back-engineered form), of which the U.S. forces have extensive experience.  If the bounties factor means newer systems are coming into play – then see the point above about U.S. intel pursuing that without prompting from the president.

The Taliban’s (and other terrorists’) history in Afghanistan with roadside bombs, ambushes, etc. is voluminous in itself; it’s what they’ve done for years, and there is no need to ask President Trump to say something new before weaving into the force operational posture the possibility that the Russians are offering bounties for these well-known types of attack.

The same is true of suicide bombings and ambush shootings in markets, as well as more elaborate attacks on helicopter landing zones and civil security outposts, where U.S./NATO and Afghan forces operate together.

Obviously, a piece of information like the Russian-bounties narrative would cue U.S. intelligence to be extra-vigilant about signs of Russian backing for terrorist infiltration of Afghan forces.  Working closely with the Afghans in security operations is a key point of vulnerability for the U.S. and NATO.  It would be a likely avenue for bounty-incentivized attacks.

Like everything else in the operational picture, this is not a brilliantly clever insight; it’s just what U.S. forces in-country would already know to act on, without the slightest urging from the White House.

The strategic/geopolitical issue

Alert readers have probably recognized that the real issue, then, if there is one, is what was done about Russia being a source of bounties on U.S. service members.

That gets back to whether the information is valid.  If it’s not, then what, exactly, was the president supposed to do about it?  Demand answers from Russia about unconfirmed information – information whose exposure to Russia might even put intelligence sources or methods in jeopardy?

If the information hasn’t been either validated in its own right or corroborated by other intelligence or events, then there is no compelling need to bring this information up with Russia at the diplomatic level.  The drawbacks of such a course appear to outweigh the incentives for it.  Seek  more intelligence on it – of course.  That’s exactly what we’ve been doing, assuming O’Brien is telling the truth.

Note, meanwhile, the excellent point Michael Pregent made this week that there’s already enough of a history of Russia targeting our troops that we can bring the point up at any time, without reference to any individual piece of information.

That’s where the emphasis for policy should be.  Pregent’s point makes the media hype about the “Russian bounties” data point look even more like a planted controversy of some kind.

The nature and source of the information are the key

We already have some near-decisive evaluation factors for the Russian-bounties narrative.  One is that Democrat Adam Schiff was briefed on it in February 2020 and did nothing at the time.  Another is that, as mentioned above, we have known for years that bounties are offered on our troops in Southwest Asia.  The Russian-bounties story does not decisively affect our operational posture or its outcomes in Afghanistan – especially if the original information was from as early as 2019.  If it’s that old, we’ve had enough time to assess that it has made no net difference.

As regards the “Russian culpability” aspect of the problem, what matters is whether it’s true.  That’s something that is best assessed by where it came from and how it got to us: the two things the public has no clue about.

Mollie Hemingway had a nice summary several days ago comparing the Russian-bounties tale to previous instances of later-repudiated intelligence like the CURVEBALL informant on Iraqi WMD programs.  I recommend that summary as a good bracer.

That said, the reluctance of anyone to give even the slightest hint about the nature of the information itself, and the concern expressed by Republicans that the big problem here is the politicization of intelligence for leak campaigns to the media, suggest that there’s a source behind it in whom (or which) the U.S. is invested.  If so, and that source has been jeopardized by the leak, then the leaker(s) and the media ought to be more than ashamed of themselves: they ought to be locked up for the rest of their lives.

Even if there’s a real, U.S.-invested source, that doesn’t mean the information is valid.  It could, however, mean that keeping it close-hold within the administration was all along about protecting the source.

And that said, we might typically expect the information to be thought more credible if it came from a U.S.-invested source.  There are other possibilities.  One that can’t be dismissed is that the information came to U.S. intelligence, sure enough, but from a source some in the U.S. media were also independently aware of.  (A source in, say, Qatar would fit the profile for such dual injection points.)

That would certainly merit a thorough investigation, although not the one congressional Democrats seem to have in mind.

The progress of the information through our national security organization indicates that it did come in to the administration through the front door of U.S. intelligence.  But that doesn’t mean it made its way to the New York Times by that route.

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Adam Schiff takes dim view of social media; says ‘We may all be moving to Canada soon’

Adam Schiff (Image via Twitter)

[Ed. – This must have been quite a forum.]

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence committee, said Monday that he might want to move to Canada, during a discussion about disinformation and election interference on social media platforms.

“We may all be moving to Canada soon,” he said during a forum on “Social Media Disinformation and Election Interference,” organized by George Washington University. …

Reflecting on a recent House Intelligence committee hearing with social media companies, Schiff said he gets “the sense that there’s something going on at Twitter, that maybe, we’ve reached the last straw for what the management of Twitter can take …”

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He shared his impression of Google after the hearing on foreign influence and election security took place.

“I, until proven otherwise, have the sense with respect to Google-YouTube that their strategy is to avoid the scrutiny of the other platforms and disclose as little as possible,” he said. “It’s not unlike the — although I’m sure they won’t appreciate this analogy — the president’s view that if you don’t test it, there is no virus.

Continue reading →

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Trump’s ties to Putin under fresh scrutiny in wake of Russia bounty reports

Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Donald Trump is facing renewed questions over his relationship with Vladimir Putin after reports that he was briefed in writing in February that Russia paid bounties for the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Related: ‘Russian bounties’ intelligence was in Trump written daily briefing – reports

After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Democratic members of Congress insisted the president must at least have been aware of the allegation against Moscow, yet failed to act.

“Based on what we heard today, it was information that a) the president should have known about and b) based on what we were told today, he did,” Adam Smith, chairman of the House armed services committee, told reporters.

Classified US reports suggested a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US and allied forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported last week.

The April 2019 killing of three US marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their vehicles as they returned to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan is seen as one possible result of the programme, which the Kremlin has denied.

The damning allegations have revived familiar questions from American political scandals: what did the president know and when did he know it?

Trump has long faced scrutiny for his warm relationship with Putin, including a refusal to accept his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow intervened on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election; calls for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations; and the dispatch of ventilators to Russia to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump and Putin spoke by phone six times between 30 March and 1 June – an unusually high number – apparently without the Afghanistan issue being mentioned.

On Monday, the Times reported that information on the bounties was included in a daily written report delivered to the president in late February, with one unnamed official specifying 27 February – a date on which Trump hosted controversial celebrity supporters Diamond and Silk at the White House.

Separately, the Associated Press said senior officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of the intelligence, and the assessment was included in at least one of Trump’s written daily briefings at the time. John Bolton, then national security adviser, told colleagues at the time he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019, the AP added.

Related: The Room Where It Happened review: John Bolton fires broadside that could sink Trump

Trump said on Sunday he was not told of the allegations because the information was not “credible”. The White House has claimed there was no consensus among intelligence agencies. The administration is yet to address whether Trump received a written report or if he read it.

At Monday’s White House briefing, the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was asked if the information was contained in the president’s daily brief, a summary of high-level information and analysis on national security issues. She replied, carefully: “He was not personally briefed on the matter” and repeated on Tuesday that Trump “was never briefed”.

White House officials briefed Democrats only after sharing information with Republicans on Monday.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told reporters: “As we look at these allegations, number one the president of the United States should not be inviting Russia into the G7 or G8. We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities.”

Schiff, who prosecuted the impeachment case against Trump over a quid pro quo with Ukraine, added: “There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear and that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin’s Russia than with respect to any other subject matter. Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill.”

Schiff called on Trump to consider imposing new economic sanctions on Russia, as did former national security adviser, John Bolton, who has published a damning book on the president, which suggests Trump is not fit for office.

Ruben Gallego, a member of the armed services committee, told MSNBC: “It is clear that this president has warped the information stream. Because of his love of Putin and Russia, it has made it more difficult, in my opinion, for briefers and people that inform the president of what is happening to keep him up to date on Russian activity, and that has caused a lot of problems.”

Related: President Trump is like a dead man golfing. So will he drop out of the election? | Arwa Mahdawi

Hillary Clinton tweeted of Trump: “Either he knew and chose to do nothing, or he didn’t know because he couldn’t be bothered to do his job.”

The New York Times further reported on Tuesday that US intelligence picked up transfers of large sums from Russian military intelligence to Taliban-linked bank accounts.

Trump’s handling of diplomatic relations took another hit on Monday when Carl Bernstein, a veteran journalist who reported on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, published a report online for CNN.

“In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state,” Bernstein wrote, citing as sources unnamed White House and intelligence officials, Trump “was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials … that the president himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States”.

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Intelligence on Russian bounty plot was included in the President’s Daily Brief earlier this year, source says

That assessment, the source said, was backed up by “several pieces of information” that supported the view that there was an effort by the Russian intelligence unit — the GRU — to pay bounties to kill US soldiers, including interrogation of Taliban detainees and electronic eavesdropping. The source said there was some other information that did not corroborate this view but said, nonetheless, ‘”This was a big deal. When it’s about US troops you go after it 100%, with everything you got.”

Trump is not known to fully or regularly read the President’s Daily Brief, something that is well-known within the White House. He is instead orally briefed two or three times a week by his intelligence officials. The White House maintains he was not briefed about this in the oral session.

The information was serious enough the National Security Council staff held a meeting during the spring to discuss “possible response options,” including sanctions, if the intelligence developed to the point it was deemed ready to take to the President for any possible action, the official said.

Pressed on Monday whether the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief — the written document that includes the intelligence community’s more important and urgent information — White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said only that Trump “was not personally briefed.”

Trump also claimed in a Sunday evening tweet, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP.”

The US intelligence community and military are investigating to see if there is further corroboration, and if the National Security Council staff can recommend response options. The source said the White House is now claiming the leak will ruin the opportunity to get a real answer.

There is “no consensus within the intelligence community” about whether Russia offered to pay bounties to the Taliban for killing American troops, McEnany said. There is “dissent” within the intelligence community about the intelligence, which she insisted had not reached Trump’s desk because “it wasn’t verified.”

The source tells CNN that intelligence of this nature with risk to US troops should be assumed to be true until you know otherwise.

The cascade of developments around the Russian effort have prompted a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to demand that the Trump administration explain what it knew and when.

The White House briefed a group of House Republican lawmakers on the matter on Monday, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel to provide all-member briefings to Congress on the intelligence.

One of those House Republicans, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texan who is the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that he had learned in the briefing that dissenting views among agencies within the intelligence community is the reason why the intelligence was not briefed to Trump.

“While there was a stream of reporting on this alleged bounty issue, intelligence from one agency, there was another agency with a very strong dissenting view on this intelligence,” McCaul said.

“When that happens, typically, the national security adviser goes back through the NSC and tries to vet this to get to a point where it can be actionable. They don’t want to throw intelligence in front of the President when there’s basically a dissent within the community itself,” he added.

McCaul said officials said that the top officials in the Trump White House were attempting to resolve the diverging views when news of the Russian effort broke.

Ratcliffe said in a statement later on Monday that a leak of intelligence “places our forces at risk” and is a crime.

“The selective leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats and places our forces at risk. It is also, simply put, a crime,” Ratcliffe said. “We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting and we will brief the President and Congressional leaders at the appropriate time. This is the analytic process working the way it should. Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”

CIA Director Gina Haspel also released a statement on Monday, saying, “Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”

She added, “CIA will continue to pursue every lead; analyze the information we collect with critical, objective eyes; and brief reliable intelligence to protect U.S. forces deployed around the world.”

Several key Senate Republicans said they are seeking more information from the Trump administration.

“It seems clear that the intelligence is real. The question is whether the President was briefed,” Pelosi told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday. “If he was not briefed, why would he not be briefed? Were they afraid to approach him on the subject of Russia?”

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, told CNN’s Jim Acosta Monday that the White House explanation that Trump wasn’t briefed because of conflicting intelligence wasn’t sufficient.

“It is frequently the case that the President should be briefed on matters where there is no absolute certainly about the intelligence on a given topic,” Schiff said.

“It’s not sufficient to say we didn’t tell him because we couldn’t dot every I, cross every T, prove every point. … If it goes to the protection of our troops, that’s something that needs to be briefed to the commander in chief.”

After The New York Times first reported the details of the Russian bounty effort on Friday, the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, denounced the Times report as “baseless allegations” that have led to death threats against Russian diplomats in Washington and London. The Taliban also rejected the report.

There have been more than 2,400 total deaths of US service members since the start of America’s longest war in 2001. Last year was the deadliest in five years for the US in Afghanistan, with 23 service members killed during operations in the country in 2019.

This story has been updated with additional information Monday.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Ryan Browne, Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.

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Trump, White House Push Back on Bolton Allegations

President Donald Trump and top officials in his administration are challenging allegations made by John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser before being fired in 2018.

Bolton made a number of claims in a book he’s trying to release despite efforts to block the publishing because it would disclose classified information. Bolton at one point claims Trump asked China’s leader Xi Jinping for help in winning re-election.

“Absolutely untrue, never happened,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Wednesday when presented with that claim. “I was there, I have no recollection of that ever happening. I don’t believe it’s true, I don’t believe it ever happened.”

The Trump administration sued Bolton this week in an attempt to block the release of the book.

John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said on June 17 that “unauthorized disclosures of classified information damage our national security.”

Then-Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) speaks to media while other impeachment defense team advisors look on, at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 27, 2020. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

Trump later in the day said Bolton “broke the law” by disclosing “highly classified information” in his book.

Bolton couldn’t get approved to a Senate-confirmed position, so he gave him the adviser role, the president said.

“Nobody’s been tough like me on China,” Trump asserted. “We’re taking in right now billions and billions of dollars from China. I gave a lot of it to the farmers, because the farmers were targeted by China. Nobody’s ever done that.”

He was speaking during an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

In a missive on Twitter, Trump said that Bolton’s book is full of “lies” and “fake stories.”

“Said all good about me, in print, until the day I fired him. A disgruntled boring fool who only wanted to go to war. Never had a clue, was ostracized & happily dumped,” he said.

The pushback came as ABC News released a snippet of an interview it recently conducted with Bolton.

john bolton
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton leaves his home in Bethesda, Md. on Jan. 28, 2020. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP Photo)

“I don’t think he’s fit for office,” Bolton said. “I don’t think he has the competency to carry out the job. There really isn’t any guiding principle that I was able to discern other than what’s good for Donald Trump’s reelection.”

“I think he was so focused on the reelection that longer-term considerations fell by the wayside,” he added. “So if he thought if he could get a photo opportunity with Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone in Korea. … There was considerable emphasis on the photo opportunity and the press reaction to it, and little or no focus on what such meetings did for the bargaining position for the United States.”

Bolton made no such allegations while serving as national security adviser and repeatedly praised the president for his actions taken against countries like Russia, China, and North Korea.

Bolton also this week referred to statements made by groups in support of his book, including PEN America and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Summer Lopez of PEN said in a statement that the White House is seemingly manipulating and abusing the pre-publication review process to prevent or delay the publication of a book that could include unflattering information about the president.”

Speaking Thursday morning on “CBS This Morning,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who led the charge to impeach Trump, said Bolton’s book “further demonstrates the quid pro quo that president [sic] coercing Ukraine by withholding military assistance.”

The book, “The Room Where It Happened,” is slated for release next week.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber