Forgetting Hanssen scandal's failures: FBI saw agent's affair as security risk but took little action

Forgetting Hanssen scandal's failures: FBI saw agent's affair as security risk but took little action
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To understand just how dysfunctional the FBI was under fired Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyMystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom Trump DOJ seized phone records of New York Times reporters MORE and his deputy, Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeThe FBI should turn off the FARA faucet John Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges Carter Page sues over surveillance related to Russia probe MORE, consider how it dealt with allegations that its lead agent in the Russia probe was having an extramarital affair that could compromise his work.

The account is included in closed-door testimony given to Congress by William Priestap, the assistant director for counterintelligence under Comey and McCabe. Priestap supervised two of the most controversial cases in the past decade — the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump asks Biden to give Putin his 'warmest regards' Huma Abedin announces book deal Mystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records MORE email scandal and the Trump-Russia collusion allegations.

As such, he was the direct boss of Peter Strzok, the Trump-hating agent who led both investigations. 


The FBI had informed Congress that Strzok was having an extramarital affair with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, the counsel to then-Deputy Director McCabe, while the Russia case was ongoing. And it was the alleged couple’s now-infamous anti-Trump text messages that gave rise to questions of possible political bias afflicting the FBI.

Last year, House investigators got the chance to question Priestap, and they asked about the importance of “personnel security” and “making sure that your employees do not do things that make them vulnerable” to a foreign power.

Priestap’s answer was clear and concise, according to the testimony I reviewed. “I’d argue it’s very important for all FBI personnel, very important for all United States intelligence community personnel. And it’s especially important for FBI counterintelligence personnel,” he answered in testimony that has not been publicly released.

He was pressed to describe the specific activities that would make an agent vulnerable to an enemy’s spy tradecraft.

“A whole variety of things,” he answered. “Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, being in difficult financial straits, affairs, if you’re married, extramarital affairs.” Later he added: “A variety of personal behaviors could make somebody more susceptible or vulnerable to foreign recruitment than other behaviors. 

“And that is made known to FBI employees?” he was asked.

“Absolutely,” he answered, confirming that Strzok, as his subordinate, would have been trained about the “vulnerabilities and trade craft of adversaries.”

Naturally, Priestap was pressed about Strzok’s alleged affair with Page. He said one or two of Strzok’s colleagues brought it to his attention and he immediately told McCabe.

“I also spoke to both Pete and Lisa about it,” Priestap added. “I felt I owed it to them. Lisa did not report to me but I felt that they ought to be aware of what was being said.”


What follows next is unbelievable. But before reading Priestap’s words, it’s essential to note that he considered an extramarital affair a security risk, yet treated his interactions with the two FBI agents as a courtesy notification rather than confronting them to see if it was true.  

“I didn’t ask them if it is true, but they needed to know that that impression was out there,” Priestap explained. “And I don’t remember my exact words. But what I was trying to communicate is, ‘This better not interfere with things,’ if you know what I mean. Like, to me, the mission is everything. And so we all have our personal lives, what have you. I’m not the morality police.” 

Lawmakers were dismayed and followed up. “But that behavior would make them vulnerable to an intelligence service?” one asked.

“In my opinion, yes,” Priestap answered.

So did he raise the vulnerability issue with Strzok and Page? 

“No,” Priestap answered. “Because, again, I didn’t know for certain it was going on and I didn’t ask them whether it was going on. And I also felt, to a comment earlier, that they knew darn well that if that was going on, that potentially makes them vulnerable.” 

So the fear of being viewed as a “morality policeman” kept the FBI’s top counterintelligence official from directly determining if two employees — one an agent, the other a lawyer, and both handling some of the most sensitive counterintelligence cases in recent FBI history — were having an affair.

Priestap’s description of how the FBI danced around the security question harkens back to FBI failures two decades earlier when bureau executives failed to confront suspicions about then-counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen, whose two decades of spying for Russia was among the worst betrayals in U.S. intelligence history.

The after-action investigations in the Hanssen scandal in 2001 and 2002 determined that the FBI suffered from a culture of “lax personnel and information security” which left agents reluctant to question their own colleagues about behavior that might be risky or detrimental.

“Our review revealed unwillingness within the FBI to report security violations and take them seriously, even when highly sensitive information was involved,” a DOJ inspector general report concluded.

The FBI, then under the leadership of Director Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE (who, of course, is now the Trump-Russia special counsel), vowed sweeping reforms to aggressively monitor agents, especially in counterintelligence. The countermeasures ranged from routine polygraphs to creation of a special internal unit looking for moles and risky behavior. 

Priestap’s testimony suggests the fervor of those reforms had waned by 2016, when the Page-Strzok allegations surfaced.

Rather than proactively confront and confirm the allegations of an affair, Priestap testified that his preference would be to wait until the bureau developed evidence that an agent was compromised and meeting a foreign adversary before taking affirmative action.

“If we had information that any FBI person was cavorting with an adversary in any regard, we’d want to know about that. But I had no information whatsoever that either of these individuals had any contact, let alone engagement or regular engagement, with an adversary.”  

Priestap also made clear how uncomfortable FBI executives felt about confronting colleagues about an affair, even if it raised security concerns, noting: “I want the best for them, but I didn’t give them any guidance on what they should do.”

FBI experts say the reluctance to confront Strzok and Page in a meaningful way was a red flag suggesting that the lessons of the Hanssen scandal may have been forgotten. 

“In fairness to Priestap, questions concerning sexual morality are no longer routinely asked about when determining whether a clearance should be granted, so it’s difficult to play that card when knowledge of an extramarital affair surfaces,” said Kevin Brock, who served as FBI assistant director for intelligence under Mueller.   

“That said, when someone in the FBI who is in an extremely sensitive position is doing something they’d prefer remain secret, the bureau has every right to explore that risk and make an assessment. Priestap acknowledged the risk in the Strzok and Page situation as very concerning, yet he took no action when he could — and likely should — have done so. Doesn’t seem to compute,” said Brock.

“What’s more concerning is that co-workers of Strzok and Page correctly did what they were trained to do and brought knowledge of the secret affair to management but management did nothing, thereby placing the FBI at risk,” he added. “Not only that, even after McCabe was briefed on the situation, he nevertheless detailed Strzok to special counsel Mueller without telling him, thus extending the risk farther. Mueller had to find out about it from the text messages.

“Just one more example of the incompetence and protected biases at the top of the FBI at that time.”

Stephen M. Kohn, a partner in the law firm of Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto, is not surprised by the FBI’s inaction, after decades of representing whistleblowing agents who alleged that management ignored problems ranging from crime-lab corruption to surveillance abuses.

“The dominant culture within the FBI is best described by an expression well known to the special agents: ‘Thou shall not embarrass the bureau,’” Kohn said.

“Outside oversight is the key for effective accountability.”

With a new attorney general in place, and a far-reaching inspector general’s investigation going on in the Justice Department, there could be a lot more accountability in 2019 for the FBI.

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.