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Not the FBI I remember: William Barnett's troubling interview

Not the FBI I remember: William Barnett's troubling interview
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So, where is John DurhamJohn DurhamSpecial counsel investigating Russia probe to retire as US attorney Biden administration withdraws from Connecticut transgender athlete case Garland seeks to draw sharp contrast with Trump-era DOJ MORE and what has become of his investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe? After serving nearly 28 years in the FBI, I’d like to know just how bad things are for the FBI — or not. Disclosures about the Steele dossier, Michael Flynn’s case, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) abuse, inspector general reports, and the left- and right-wing media spin all paint a troubling picture of the inner workings at the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ). They apparently abandoned their most basic principle — the search for truth — and replaced it with bias, hubris and a disregard for FBI procedures. 

A window into chaos at both the FBI and DOJ can be seen through the eyes of one individual at the center: the case agent for the Flynn investigation.

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In September, federal prosecutors filed a supplemental motion in the case. It included the interview of FBI Special Agent William Barnett. An agent of 20 years, he was interviewed as a witness in an independent DOJ review of the FBI’s investigation of the Flynn case. Barnett  “handled the counterintelligence investigation of Mr. Flynn, and was thereafter assigned to the Special Counsel’s Office investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.”

Barnett’s interview reveals a startling glimpse of dysfunction inside the FBI and Special Counsel Office. Clearly an outsider, he was skeptical of the Flynn case from the beginning. He was not alone in his views, but his assessments and persistent questions — “Where’s the crime?” — put him at odds with his superiors.

After joining the Flynn investigation in August 2016, Barnett initially viewed the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation, into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, as “opaque,” articulating no specific criminal violations. The “Crossfire Razor” investigation into Flynn was disorganized and weakly predicated.

The Razor investigation remained in a holding pattern through late 2016, with no directive to close the case or pressure to investigate. Barnett sought to close the investigation after the election. To wrap up a case that developed no evidence of a crime, he suggested interviewing Flynn. His request was denied.

In late December, former agent Peter Strzok ordered the case closed, but on Jan. 4, 2016, Barnett was told to wait. Since much of his interview is redacted, I’m presuming that Barnett was then asked to read a transcript of the phone conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016. Barnett remained unpersuaded that Flynn was compromised by Russia.

This is where things get interesting.

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Instead of closing the case, Barnett’s supervisor now suggests interviewing Flynn the next day; however, Barnett is not available. He was excluded from further discussions until Jan. 25, when he was informed that Flynn was interviewed the previous day. His supervisor was apologetic that Barnett was not consulted or notified.  

Let’s pause here to ask some questions:

Q: If the counterintelligence investigation of Flynn washed out and was to be closed in early January, what was the investigative basis for the FBI to interview Flynn in late January? The Logan Act

A: Not likely. This statute has been widely debunked as a viable charge. 

Q: Was the interview triggered because the FBI obtained new information, perhaps from the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls? 

A: No, the substance of the calls was already known to the FBI and made public, so they didn’t need Flynn to tell them what was discussed.

Q: Did the phone discussions indicate that Flynn was compromised and working on behalf of Russia? 

A: The transcript suggests that Flynn was working in favor of U.S. interests, not Russian.

When the agents walked into Flynn’s office, they had no tenable violation of law to investigate. By the time they finished, they found one — not an espionage charge or mishandling of classified information, but “false statements,” something disconnected from the bureau’s original investigative predication. For such an investigation, a false statements charge is not where you should end up. 

All investigations start with at least a reasonable belief that at least one criminal statute has been violated. You may look into some suspicious activity with all kinds of shady phone calls, dodgy meetings in foreign countries with dubious foreign actors, but unless you can reasonably articulate that the activity constitutes a potential violation of federal law, it’s interesting but it’s not a case.

After the Flynn interview, numerous meetings occurred between the DOJ and FBI regarding the investigation. The case was now directed by FBI senior officials. News articles were published disclosing the substance of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations.

In early February 2017, after his exclusion, Barnett asked to be removed from the Razor investigation. He explained that the inspector general was looking into the Hillary Clinton emails case and believed that the Flynn investigation would trigger its own IG investigation.   

After Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE was appointed special counsel, Barnett briefed the Flynn case to Special Counsel Office attorney Jean Rhee, concluding no evidence of a crime was found. Rhee wasn’t satisfied and continued to drill down on the case. Barnett wanted nothing to do with the investigation, although Strzok persuaded him to continue working at the office, just not with Rhee.

After the firing of former FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyWray says FBI not systemically racist John Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges Trump DOJ officials sought to block search of Giuliani records: report MORE, Mueller’s attorneys directed all investigative activity. Barnett said he sensed a sort of “groupthink” and a “get Trump” attitude. Mueller’s team wanted to be part of something big, but not solely to get Trump. It appears they started with the assumption that a crime had been committed and their goal was to find evidence to support the charge.  

These attorneys apparently lacked a sense of curiosity, demonstrated by their failure to ask clarifying questions of a witness. They interpreted what they heard in a way that aligned with their preconceived notions. Pinning a witness down on details may tease out key facts, but it also may quash the hope that you’ve found “the smoking gun.” In their groupthink, it evidently did not occur to them that sometimes a witness simply does not have the desired information.

Barnett’s interview is just one agent’s perspective of his time working on the Flynn case — but it has credibility. FBI management saw fit to assign him to run a high-profile, politically volatile case, despite his cynical views that ran counter to senior FBI and DOJ officials, and his requests to be removed from the case.  

This is not the FBI I remember. 

Mark D. Ferbrache was an FBI agent from 1983 to 2011 specializing in white-collar criminal investigations. He later worked in the bureau’s National Security Division and CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and held diplomatic assignments in Prague, London and Bucharest, as well as field office assignments in Seattle, New York and the FBI Headquarters in Washington. He is currently employed as a contractor in the U.S. intelligence community.