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FBI memos detail ‘partisan axes,’ secret conflicts behind the Russia election meddling assessment
By John Solomon
For most of the past two years, the U.S. intelligence community has presented a united front on all the key conclusions in the January 2017 report that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Now, congressional investigators have unearthed text messages and emails showing the FBI feared there were some in the intelligence community with "partisan axes to grind" and suggesting there could be no singular conclusion that Moscow wanted to help elect Donald Trump.
For instance, then-FBI agent Peter Strzok's text and email messages in December 2016 and January 2017 show his boss feared that giving some classified information to the White House, then-Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper and the larger intelligence community in the final days of the Obama administration might result in political abuse.
"He, like us, is concerned with over sharing. Doesn't want Clapper giving CR cuts to WH. All political, just shows our hand and potentially makes enemies," Strzok wrote to FBI lawyer Lisa Page on Jan. 3, 2017, relating a conversation he apparently had with then-Assistant Director William Priestap, the top counterintelligence official in the bureau.
Investigators aren't certain yet what "CR cuts" refers to. Some, though, think it could be a reference to "classified raw" intelligence, such as the unverified Steele dossier or possible intercepts. Others wonder whether it could refer to budget cuts in a "continuing resolution" though no such budget was pending at the time. Whatever the case, the political distrust of colleagues is clear. "WH," of course, refers to the White House.
"Yeah, but keep in mind we were going to put that in the doc on Friday, with potentially larger distribution than just the dni," Page texted back. Strzok answered back, escalating his concerns: "The question is should we, particularly to the entirety of the lame duck usic with partisan axes to grind." "USIC" is an acronym for the United States Intelligence Community.
The text messages were exchanged at a critical time, less than 72 hours before the U.S. intelligence community would release an explosive report to then-President Obama, President-elect Donald Trump and the public concluding that Russia did in fact meddle in the 2016 election.
That report concluded Russia's intent was to help Trump win the presidency.
But texts and emails uncovered by congressional investigators suggest there was some ambiguity in the classified information about sorting out the true intentions of Moscow.
Just before Christmas in 2016, as Trump was preparing to assume the presidency, Strzok and Page texted sentiments of concern that there was some conflicts between classified intelligence and the information already in the intelligence community.
Those conflicts, they feared, would surface as the FBI made its final contribution to the intelligence community report on Russia meddling.
"Man, our intel submission is going to be a BOMB," Strzok texted on the evening of Dec. 18, 2016.
"Oh god, why do you say that?" Page wrote back. "Was planning to try to go in early to reach it before our mtg with Jim," an apparent reference to FBI chief of staff James Rybicki.
"Oh it's fine. You've heard it all. I'm just saying the C portion is absolutely different from the bulk of the stuff in the community. And the community and especially the WH will jump all over it since it's what they WANT to say and they can attribute it to us, not themselves.
"All the benefit, none of the political risk. We get all of that," Strzok added.
At the time, the FBI had the unverified dossier written by a former British spy alleging unproven collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, as well as information from an Australian diplomat suggesting a Trump campaign aide had prior knowledge of Russian hacking of Clinton's emails.
Congressional investigators believe Strzok and Page might be referencing that classified information, since it was something not widely known in the intelligence community at the time.
But at the same time, the FBI also was debating whether it could definitely conclude that Russia's intent in meddling in the 2016 election was to help Trump win. Strzok, in December, had talked with the House Intelligence Committee, and some lawmakers privately expressed concern that his analysis was different than that of the CIA, emails show.
On Dec. 10, 2016, the FBI received an inquiry from a reporter about whether the FBI was uncertain about the emerging conclusion that Russia was trying to help Trump win. The reporter intended to report that FBI counterintelligence was "much less emphatic than the CIA about Russia intent."
Strzok weighed in to help the FBI press office address the reporter's question, an email that has now captured congressional investigators' fancy because it states clearly the FBI couldn't distinguish that any one of three possible motives drove Russia's meddling.
"The specific point I made was we did not have information to differentiate what their ultimate goal was," Strzok emailed, adding that then-Director James Comey told Senate Intelligence something similar.
"In other words, the activity is one-sided and clear but we can't say the sole and primary purpose was specifically intended to help someone, hurt someone else or undermine the process. The reality is all three," he wrote.
Strzok's email is more carefully couched than the official intelligence report that came out Jan. 6, 2017, from the Obama administration that simply declared: "We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."
That report has been the official conclusion of the community for two years. But there has been evidence of dissent or uncertainty - not on Russia's meddling but as it relates to Trump.
The National Security Agency disclosed it only had "moderate confidence" in the conclusion that Putin was trying to help Trump. The House Intelligence Committee said it could not validate Putin's intentions about Trump.
And now Strzok's recently disclosed emails and texts show the final process leading to the issuance of the Russia report was secretly mired in concerns about "partisan axes," differences in intelligence community information and a subtle but important realization that the "primary purpose" for Russia's meddling really couldn't be determined.
Today, there is little doubt Russia meddled in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of the Russian military hackers makes a convincing case.
Yet, day by day, the more sensational claim that Trump and Russia colluded together on that effort are being called into question by evidence that belatedly gets produced by the FBI and Justice Department.
Such slow-walking of the truth is what angers members of Congress who have longed to achieve transparency.
"Why the roadblocks, why make it so difficult?" Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told Hill.TV recently, describing the Justice Department's uneven cooperation as "frustrating."
"If you're really trying to help the American people understand what took place, just give us the stuff," Jordan said.
The FBI and Justice Department have a chance to make good on that. President Trump has ordered the declassification of the key originating documents in the Russia probe. The question is whether the FBI and Justice will do so, or engage instead in creative editing and redaction.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill's executive vice president for video.
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