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FBI agents' text messages spur congressional probe into possible news leaks
Republican-led House and Senate committees are investigating whether leaders of the Russia counterintelligence investigation had contacts with the news media that resulted in improper leaks, prompted in part by text messages amongst senior FBI officials mentioning specific reporters, news organizations and articles.
In one exchange, FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page engaged in a series of texts shortly before Election Day 2016 suggesting they knew in advance about an article in The Wall Street Journal and would need to feign stumbling onto the story so it could be shared with colleagues.
"Article is out, but hidden behind paywall so can't read it," Page texted Strzok on Oct. 24, 2016.
"Wsj? Boy that was fast," Strzok texted back, using the initials of the famed financial newspaper. "Should I 'find' it and tell the team?"
The text messages, which were reviewed by The Hill, show the two FBI agents discussed how they might make it appear they innocently discovered the article, such as through Google News alerts.
"I can get it like I do every other article that hits any Google News alerts, seriously," Strzok wrote, adding he didn't want his team hearing about the article "from someone else."
Strzok played a key role in the early Russia election meddling probe before he was removed last summer by special counsel Robert Mueller for exchanging text messages critical of President Trump, then still a candidate, with Page.
The Justice Department has told Congress that Strzok had engaged in an affair with Page, who served as a lawyer advising FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
The Hill reviewed nearly three dozen texts in which the two agents discussed articles, tried to track down information about a specific New York Times reporter or opined about leaked information in stories that they fretted were "super specific."
Republican investigators in both the House and Senate say the text messages suggest FBI personnel may have had media contacts but don't necessarily prove it. So they want to learn more about what the two agents were talking about and whether any FBI officials involved in the Russia probe engaged in leaking, sources told The Hill.
President Trump has bitterly complained about leaks in the Russia probe, suggesting the investigation had created a false narrative about his campaign and early administration. And FBI officials have taken the rare step of denouncing a few major stories in the Russia case as inaccurate.
FBI contacts with the media wouldn't necessarily be improper unless they resulted in the release of confidential law enforcement information or classified information, such as the leak last February of an intercept of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
The Justice Department says it currently has 27 ongoing criminal leak investigations, triple the amount of the prior three years combined.
FBI and Justice Department officials declined to comment about the Strzok-Page texts, noting the Justice Department inspector general is currently investigating the messages and any political bias or other wrongdoing that may have occurred in the Russia case.
Former FBI Director James Comey, on whose watch the Russia case began, has previously testified he did not authorize or engage in leaking while in office, though he admitted arranging a leak after he was fired by President Trump last spring in hopes it would prompt a special prosecutor appointment.
Separately, the House Intelligence Committee says it has obtained information that Mueller's current deputy in the Russia probe, respected Justice Department financial fraud prosecutor Andrew Weissman, had contact with the news media last April, shortly before Mueller was named special prosecutor, according to a letter the committee has sent the department.
In a deal with current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Justice officials have promised to provide the Intelligence Committee with information on the Weismann contacts later this week.
"I understand that your office is researching records related to the details of an April 2017 meeting between DOJ Attorney Andrew Weissman (now the senior attorney for Special Counsel Robert Mueller) and the media, which will also be provided to this Committee by close of business on Thursday, January 11, 2018," Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) wrote in the letter.
Whatever Congress ultimately determines, the Strzok-Page text messages already provided to lawmakers show the two FBI agents were closely monitoring leaks in the news media and had strong opinions about reporters and media personalities.
In one string of text messages just five days before Election Day 2016, Page, the lawyer, alerted Strzok, the counterintelligence agent, to a story in The Washington Post about a timeline in the controversial Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Page mentions a conversation she had just had with FBI chief of staff James Rybicki and openly expressed concern the information about the FBI's timeline was too specific for comfort in the article.
"Sorry, Rybicki called. Time line article in the post (sic) is super specific and not good. Doesn't make sense because I didn't have specific information to give."
A few days earlier Strzok texted Page about another new article, suggesting it was anti-FBI. "Yep, the whole tone is anti-Bu. Just a tiny bit from us," he wrote.
Page texted she had seen the article. "Makes me feel WAY less bad about throwing him under the bus to the forthcoming CF article," she texted. Congressional investigators are still trying to determine what the "CF article" reference means and who the agents thought they were trying to throw "under the bus."
Republicans want to interview Page to determine if she assisted with any "forthcoming" articles or helped another FBI employee "give" information to the news media, particularly because she helped advise then-deputy director McCabe.
Likewise, congressional investigators want to question Strzok about what he meant about the "tiny bit from us" reference.
The two agents also spent extensive time shortly before the 2016 election trying to track down information - including an address and a spouse's job - about The New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, who has reported on numerous developments in the Russia case.
"We got a list of kids with their parents' names. How many Matt Apuzzo's (sic) could there be in DC," Page texted. "Showed J a picture, he said he thinks he has seen a guy who kinda looks like that, but always really schlubby. I said that sounds like every reporter I have ever seen."
A minute later, Page added another text: "Found what I think might be their address, too."
Strzok writes back, "He's TOTALLY schlubby. Don't you remember?"
Page responded later by saying she found information on the reporter's wife too. "Found address looking for her. Lawyer."
Strzok cautions Page against using the work phone to track down information on the reporter. "I wouldn't search on your work phone, ,,, no idea what that might trigger," he texted.
"Oops. Too late," she responded back.
Apuzzo declined comment when contacted on his cell phone.
The two agents exchanged numerous texts sharing links or information about stories in the Russia case, including one shortly before Election Day in which then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed concerns there was evidence Trump associates had contacts with Russian figures.
When the two shared a National Public Radio article on the opening of Trump's new hotel in Washington, the two could barely contain their disdain.
"That's one place I hope I never stay in," Page wrote.
Strzok replied. "Agreed. I hope it fails horribly."
Occasionally the two also opined about the media in general. Strzok, for instance, called a New York Post article about agents unhappy with the outcome of the Clinton email case "stupid," and referred to Fox anchor Chris Wallace as a "turd."
After one of the presidential debates, Strzok also had an observation about then-Fox anchor and current NBC anchor Megyn Kelly. "Vaguely satisfying to see Megyn Kelly (who had Botox and looks HORRIBLE) utterly going after Trump," he texted.