Crossfire Hurricane (FBI investigation)

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Crossfire Hurricane was the code name for a covert counterintelligence investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into links between Trump associates and Russian officials and suspected coordination between the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government's interference in the 2016 United States elections. This investigation was also otherwise known as the Russia investigation.

From late July to November 2016, a joint effort between the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA) examined evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election. The FBI's team enjoyed a large degree of autonomy within the broader interagency probe. The Crossfire Hurricane investigation was officially opened on July 31, 2016, initially due to information on Trump campaign member George Papadopoulos' early knowledge of Russians having damaging material on Donald Trump's rival candidate Hillary Clinton. The FBI's work was taken over on May 17, 2017, by the Special Counsel investigation of 2017–2019, which eventually resulted in the Mueller Report. Mueller concluded that Russian interference occurred in a "sweeping and systematic fashion" and that there were substantial links with the Trump campaign, but that the evidence available to investigators did not establish that the Trump campaign had "conspired or coordinated" with the Russian government.

Origins[edit]

After working on the Ben Carson campaign as a foreign policy adviser, until Carson left the presidential race in January 2016, George Papadopoulos accepted a job offer at the London Centre of International Law Practice (LCILP). Within this work, he was invited on March 12 to meet Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud on the Link Campus University in Rome. Soon thereafter Papadopoulos joined the Trump campaign – Trump annouced him as a foreign policy adviser on March 21. Mifsud took more interest in Papadopoulos, and met him in London on March 24 with a Russian woman posing as "Putin's niece".[1]

Mifsud travelled to Moscow in April 2016, and upon his return he told Papadopoulos that Russian government officials were in possession of "thousands of emails" that could be politically damaging to Hillary Clinton.[1][2] On May 6, Papadopoulos met Alexander Downer, the Australian High Commissioner to Britain in a London bar, and told him about the Clinton emails over drinks.[1] After WikiLeaks released hacked DNC emails on July 22, the Australian government on July 26 advised American authorities of the encounter between Downer and Papadopoulos, which spurred the FBI into launching the Crossfire Hurricane investigation on July 31.[3]

In March 2017, FBI Director James Comey confirmed in a congressional hearing that the FBI had been investigating Russian interference as part of its counterintelligence mission. He further confirmed that the probe included links between Trump campaign members and the Russian government, and "whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts".[4] Comey added in a June Senate hearing that President Trump had not been personally under investigation until Comey's departure from the FBI.[5][6]

In his May 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, CIA director John Brennan stated that he had convened in late July 2016 a group of officials from the CIA, NSA and FBI to investigate Russian interference.[7][8] In a July 2017 interview, Brennan described this group effort as a "fusion cell".[9] Brennan also testified that he gave the FBI leads involving "contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign", that were beyond the CIA's mandate to pursue. He said that this information "served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion [or] cooperation occurred."[10]

In February 2018, the Nunes memo, written by staff for U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, stated: "The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok",[11] rather than the Steele dossier as asserted by, among others, President Donald Trump, Nunes, and several Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.[12][13][14] A rebuttal memo by Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee confirmed that the investigation was opened on July 31, 2016, and stated that Christopher Steele's memos "played no role in launching the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference and links to the Trump campaign." The counter-memo added that the FBI investigative team only received the Steele dossier in mid-September, "because the probe's existence was so closely held within the FBI."[15][16]

In April 2018, the House Intelligence Committee, then in Republican control, released a report on Russian interference stating that the FBI opened its counterintelligence probe in late July 2016 "following the receipt of derogatory information about foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos."[17][18][19] The Mueller Report of the Special Counsel investigation, completed in March 2019, also states that the Papadopoulos information about Russia having acquired damaging material on Clinton "prompted the FBI on July 31, 2016, to open an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump Campaign were coordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities".[20][21]

In June 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (released a report on its counter-investigation into the FBI's investigation of the Hillary Clinton email controversy. This report stated: "On July 31, 2016, just weeks after the conclusion of the Midyear investigation [into Clinton], the FBI opened its investigation of Russian interference in the ongoing presidential election [...] the Russia investigation, which touched upon the campaign of then candidate Trump."[22]

Investigations[edit]

The FBI’s concerns became clear after Brennan shared intelligence about Russian interference with Comey in mid-August 2016. The FBI investigation, code named Crossfire Hurricane, had a large degree of independence from inter-agency efforts to investigate Russian interference.[23] According to a April 2018 House Intelligence Committee report, a "fusion cell on Russian election interference, which was comprised of analysts from the CIA, FBI, and NSA […] operated through the election". The report also wrote that the fusion cell itself stood down in mid-November 2016.[19]

Crossfire Hurricane initially targeted several individuals connected to the Trump campaign: Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone.[23][24] During the investigation, the FBI used national security letters to obtain phone records and other documents. FBI agents, believing that Trump would lose the election, and cognizant of Trump's claims that the election was rigged against him, were careful to ensure that the investigation did not become public, as they feared that if Trump lost he would blame his defeat on the revelation of the investigation.[23] However, after the election, texts on December 15, 2016, from the FBI lead investigator Peter Strzok to FBI attorney Lisa Page showed that Strzok was likely aware of what he took to be politically motivated leaks from other intelligence agencies, although the texts showed Strzok and Page themselves typically coordinated their public communications with the FBI press office.[25]

The Office of the Inspector General's June 2018 report states that Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, "and several others from the Midyear investigation [by the FBI into Hillary Clinton] were assigned to the Russia investigation, which [the Office was] told was extremely active during this September and October [2016] time period." Strzok "was assigned to lead the Russia investigation in late July 2016", and E. W. Priestap had a supervisory role over the Russia investigation during an unspecified time period.[22]

This investigation's work continued into May 2017.[26]

Philip Bump of The Washington Post reported in May 2019 that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff had said that after the firing of James Comey, congressmen were no longer briefed on the status of the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Trump associates, despite the multiple criminal investigations spawning from it.[27]

FISA warrants[edit]

The FBI had surveilled Carter Page under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant beginning in 2013 or 2014, on concerns that Russian intelligence was attempting to recruit him.[24][28] Trump announced his candidacy for President in June 2015, and Page joined his campaign on March 21, 2016.[29][30] After Michael Isikoff of Yahoo! News reported on September 23, 2016, that Page was being investigated by American intelligence for his contacts with Russian agents,[31] Page immediately left the Trump campaign, while two campaign spokesmen denied that he had ever been a part of it.[32][33]

During the summer of 2016, the FBI applied for a warrant to conduct surveillance on four members of the Trump campaign, but this application was rejected by the FISA court as too broad.[34]

On October 21, 2016, the FBI filed a new FISA warrant application for Page alone, expressing the FBI's belief that the Russian government was collaborating with Page and possibly others associated with the Trump campaign,[35] and that Page had been the subject of targeted recruitment by Russian intelligence agencies.[36] The rationale advanced in support of this warrant relied in part on Page's prior activities, in part on intercepts of Russian communications or confidential human intelligence sources, and in part on a "dossier" of raw intelligence findings gathered by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele.[23] The Steele dossier alleged that Page had originated the idea of leaking the DNC emails,[37] and that he was negotiating a share of Rosneft in exchange for Trump lifting sanctions against Russia if elected.[38] The application disclosed that the dossier had been compiled by someone "likely looking for information that could be used to discredit" the Trump campaign, but did not disclose that it was indirectly funded as opposition research by the DNC and the Clinton campaign.[39] Steele had previously worked with the FBI and was considered trustworthy.[23]

The request was signed by Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and Judge Rosemary M. Collyer issued the warrant, concluding there was probable cause to believe that Page was a foreign agent knowingly engaging in clandestine intelligence for the Russian government.[40] The warrant on Page was renewed three times, each for an additional 90 days.[23][36][40] The extensions were issued by three different District Court judges: Michael W. Mosman, Anne C. Conway and Raymond J. Dearie. The first two extensions were signed by Comey, and the last one by his deputy Andrew McCabe after Comey was fired. In addition, Acting Attorney General Dana Boente signed the first extension, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein signed the last two.[23][36]

Confidential informants[edit]

Beginning in summer 2016, the investigation utilized Stefan Halper as a secret informant. Halper spoke separately to Trump campaign advisers Sam Clovis, Page and Papadopoulos. Page said that he "had extensive discussions" with Halper on "a bunch of different foreign-policy-related topics," ending in September 2017.[41] A former federal law enforcement official told The New York Times that their initial encounter at a London symposium on July 11–12, 2016, was a coincidence, rather than at the direction of the FBI.[42][41] Clovis's attorney said that Clovis and Halper had discussed China during their sole meeting on August 31 or September 1, 2016, and Clovis stated in May 2018 that it appeared Halper, a longtime Republican, was only offering his assistance to the campaign.[41][43] On September 2, 2016, Halper contacted Papadopoulos, inviting him to London and to write a paper on Mediterranean old fields, which he did.[41] On September 15, 2016, Halper asked Papadopoulos if he knew of any Russian efforts to disrupt the election campaign; Papadopoulos twice denied he did, despite having been told by Mifsud in April that Russians had embarrassing Clinton emails, and Papadopoulos having relayed this information to Downer in May. The New York Times reported in April 2019 that the FBI had asked Halper to approach Page and Papadopoulos, and that it was unclear whether he had been asked to contact Clovis.[44]

In May 2019, the Times reported that Page had urged Halper to meet with Clovis, and that the FBI was aware of the meeting but had not instructed Halper to ask Clovis about Russia matters. The Times also reported that the FBI had sent a female investigator using the name Azra Turk to meet with Papadopoulos while posing as Halper's assistant.[43] Papadopoulos described Turk as suspiciously "flirtatious", and believes she was affiliated with the CIA or Turkish intelligence.[45] The Times stated that the FBI considered it essential to add a trained and trusted investigator like Turk as a "layer of oversight", in the event the investigation was ultimately prosecuted, and the government needed the credible testimony of such an individual without exposing Halper as a longtime confidential informant.[43]

Takeover by special counsel[edit]

On May 8, 2017, Trump dismissed Comey from his tenure as FBI Director.[46][47] Over 130 Democratic lawmakers of the United States Congress called for a special counsel to be appointed in reaction to Comey's firing.[48]

On May 17, 2017, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel under the applicable Department of Justice regulation, and the Special Counsel investigation took over the Crossfire Hurricane efforts, which were still ongoing at the time.[26][47][49] Rosenstein's authority to appoint Mueller arose due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' March 2017 recusal of himself from investigations into the Trump campaign.[47][49][50]

Eventual criminal charges[edit]

George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty on October 5, 2017, to making false statements.[51] On January 27, 2017, Papadopoulos had lied to FBI investigators regarding his contacts with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor with connections to Russian government officials.[52] The special counsel's office was unable to fully investigate Papadopoulos' activities with Sergei Millian, a Belarusian native turned American citizen, because Millian did not cooperate with investigators. Millian previously said he had "insider knowledge and direct access to the top hierarchy in Russian politics".[53]

Flynn pleaded guilty on December 1, 2017, to making false statements. On January 24, 2017, Flynn had lied to FBI investigators regarding his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the United States.[54]

Manafort pleaded guilty on September 14, 2018, to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice for witness tampering, and one count of participating in a conspiracy against the United States. NBC News wrote that Manafort's conspiracy charge was related to "money laundering, tax fraud, failing to file Foreign Bank Account Reports, violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and lying and misrepresenting to the Department of Justice."[55]

Stone was arrested on January 25, 2019, and charged on seven counts, including witness tampering and lying to investigators.[56]

Page was not charged with a crime by the special counsel investigation. Its report said: "The investigation did not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election". However, with incomplete "evidence or testimony about who Page may have met or communicated with in Moscow", "Page's activities in Russia – as described in his emails with the [Trump campaign] – were not fully explained."[57][53]

Eventual conclusions[edit]

On March 22, 2019, the Special Counsel investigation was concluded, and the Mueller Report was submitted that day.[58]

On April 18, 2019, a redacted version of the special counsel's report was released to Congress and the public. About one-eighth of the lines are redacted.[59]

Russian interference[edit]

The Mueller Report concluded that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election did occur "in sweeping and systematic fashion" and "violated U.S. criminal law."[60][61]

The first method detailed in the final report was the usage of the Internet Research Agency, waging "a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton".[62] The Internet Research Agency also sought to "provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States".[63]

The second method of Russian interference saw the Russian intelligence service, the GRU, hacking into email accounts owned by volunteers and employees of the Clinton presidential campaign, including that of campaign chairman John Podesta, and also hacking into "the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC)". As a result, the GRU obtained hundreds of thousands of hacked documents, and the GRU proceeded by arranging releases of damaging hacked material via the WikiLeaks organization and also GRU's personas "DCLeaks" and "Guccifer 2.0."[64][65][66]

Conspiracy or coordination[edit]

To establish whether a crime was committed by members of the Trump campaign with regard to Russian interference, the special counsel's investigators "applied the framework of conspiracy law", and not the concept of "collusion", because collusion "is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law."[67][68] They also investigated if members of the Trump campaign "coordinated" with Russia, using the definition of "coordination" as having "an agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference". Investigators further elaborated that merely having "two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other's actions or interests" was not enough to establish coordination.[69]

The Mueller Report writes that the investigation "identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign", found that Russia "perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency" and that the 2016 Trump presidential campaign "expected it would benefit electorally" from Russian hacking efforts. Ultimately, "the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities".[70][71]

However, investigators had an incomplete picture of what had really occurred during the 2016 campaign, due to some associates of Trump campaign providing either false, incomplete or declined testimony, as well as having deleted, unsaved or encrypted communications. As such, the Mueller Report "cannot rule out the possibility" that information then unavailable to investigators would have presented different findings.[72][73]

Counter-investigations[edit]

Since March 2018,[74] the Justice Department's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, has been investigating the origins of the FBI's Russia investigation, the informants used, and the process followed to authorize surveillance of Carter Page.[44]

As of May 2019, Attorney General William Barr is conducting an investigation into the origins of the FBI probe, whether surveillance was adequately predicated, potential overreach by FBI or DOJ leadership, and whether the Steele dossier was part of a Russian disinformation campaign.[75][76] Barr assigned John Durham, the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, to lead the investigation.[77]

References[edit]

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  2. ^ Stripling, Jack (April 18, 2019). "What the Mueller Report Reveals About the Globe-Trotting Professor Who Spoke of 'Dirt' on Clinton". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
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    1. Zappone, Chris. "George Papadopoulos spreading disinformation to Australia". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved March 27, 2019. After Papadopoulos told Downer in 2016 that Russia possessed damaging material about then-US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Downer told US authorities, helping prompt the investigation led by Robert Mueller.
    2. "Former Donald Trump aide George Papadopoulos, who was outed by Alexander Downer asks for prison delay". news.com.au. Retrieved March 27, 2019. This information has been described as the starting point that led to an FBI investigation and then the Mueller probe into Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.
    3. "Ex-Trump adviser takes aim at Alexander Downer after Mueller report". The Guardian. Retrieved March 27, 2019. George Papadopoulos, who famously met Alexander Downer at a London bar in what some have said was a trigger for the Robert Mueller investigation into Trump-Russian collusion
    4. "Robert Mueller's report on Trump-Russia probe may name Australians". SBS World News. Retrieved March 27, 2019. The drinks — Downer and Papadopoulos say they only had one gin and tonic each — were credited with sparking the FBI investigation that eventually led to Mueller's appointment.
    5. "Alexander Downer interviewed by FBI over Russian interference in US election, report says". ABC News. Retrieved March 27, 2019. The results, summarised and sent to Washington on August 2 last year, reportedly laid the foundations for what is now special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. The breakthrough stemmed from a night of heavy drinking Mr Downer had with former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos at the Kensington Wine Rooms in London in May 2016.
    6. Mitchell, Peter. "Downer, Papadopoulos, a few gins and the Mueller probe". The Australian Financial Review. Archived from the original on September 12, 2018. Retrieved March 27, 2019. It was a meeting between Downer and Papadopoulos at London bar the Kensington Wine Rooms in May 2016 that has been credited with sparking the FBI investigation into Russia election interference that then led to the Mueller probe.
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    COMEY: That's correct.
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    5. Easley, Jonathan. "Memo: Papadopoulos info triggered FBI's Russia investigation". The Hill. Retrieved March 27, 2019. according to the memo released Friday by House Intelligence Committee Republicans ... Russia investigation itself — and by extension, special counsel Robert Mueller's probe — was launched from ... "information" about Papadapoulos, rather than the dossier.
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