All 50,000 of them? That’s how many texts the FBI apparently “lost” in their retention system during the period of time in which agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page carried on an extramarital affair — and might have injected partisan bias into the probe of Russian interference in the election. The bureau previously turned over 375 messages to congressional investigators, but when the panels asked for a broader range of messages, the FBI discovered that the messages had been deleted.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions promises to "leave no stone unturned" to find missing text messages tied to the Russia investigation. Republicans say the texts may show bias by the FBI's Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who once worked for special counsel Robert Mueller pic.twitter.com/IlVVQm1Vwt
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 23, 2018
The Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating why the FBI did not retain text messages for five months, including those exchanged by two senior officials involved in the probes of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said late Monday that he has spoken to Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz about the missing text messages and that “a review is already underway to ascertain what occurred” and determine whether the missing text messages can be recovered.
“We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable from another source,” Sessions said in a statement.
Sessions also warned of “appropriate legal disciplinary action” if the messages were purposefully deleted. That would be obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence, crimes that the FBI has no hesitancy in establishing when interrogating suspects and material witnesses in their own investigations. Usually, these kinds of systemic issues are created by incompetence, but this seems awfully coincidental and at the same time unusually beneficial to both the FBI and the two agents. It still may well be an unrelated systems management issue, but the bureau will bear a heavy burden in convincing people if that’s their conclusion.
House Republicans Trey Gowdy and John Ratcliffe aren’t biting on the “coincidence” theory. They want to know more about Strzok’s “secret society” comment in the text messages that they do have:
Reps. Trey Gowdy and John Ratcliffe join FNC’s Martha McCallum to talk about another newly released text message between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. This time, Strzok implies a “secret society” of federal agents worked to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president.
“It is possible these text messages that are missing, perhaps they really were lost. Perhaps it is another strange coincidence,” Ratcliffe said. “It is harder and harder for us to explain one strange coincidence after another.”
“We know that Strzok and Page had an intense anti-Trump bias,” he said. “And that’s OK, so long as they check it at the door and do their job. We learned today in the thousands of text messages we have reviewed, that perhaps they may not have done that. We know about this ‘insurance policy’ that was referenced trying to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president.”
Ratcliffe continued: “We learned today about information that in the immediate aftermath of his election, there may have been a ‘secret society’ of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI, to include Page and Strzok, working against him. I’m not saying that actually happened, but when folks speak in those terms, they need to come forward to explain the context.”
About the “secret society,” Gowdy said: “You have this insurance policy in Spring 2016, and then the day after the election, what they really didn’t want to have happen, there is a text exchange between these two FBI agents, these supposed to be fact-centric FBI agents saying, ‘Perhaps this is the first meeting of the secret society.’ So I’m going to want to know what secret society you are talking about, because you’re supposed to be investigating objectively the person who just won the electoral college. So yeah — I’m going to want to know.”
How tough will it be to find these messages? The FBI claims that the Samsung 5 had an issue with retention on the devices themselves, but the transmission of those messages would create more records to find. If the texts got sent over commercial cellular phone networks, one would think it would be fairly easy to restore them. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act and other regulatory issues, cellular companies have kept lengthy archives of both call and text records. Law enforcement routinely works with cellular companies to retrieve messages that have been deleted off of phones either used during or incidental to crimes; this should be no different.
If they can’t retrieve the messages, what then? For one, it will cast a long shadow over the FBI’s work during the summer of 2016 and their motives in seeking the FISA warrant that began the Russia-collusion hypothesis. Thanks to the texts already seen from Strzok and Page, the appearance of partisanship has already been established, so a failure to produce the rest of their messages will at the very least look like a cover-up, even if it isn’t. Second, it might force Congress to yank Robert Mueller’s chain and demand to see what he’s discovered about the Strzok-Page element in the case.
Third and most critically, the suspicion that the FBI destroyed evidence might make it impossible for Mueller to seek criminal convictions with any evidence connected to that FISA warrant, no matter how indirectly the charges are tied to it. It’s the kind of misconduct that ends prosecutions, and Mueller understands that well enough. Any criminal defense attorney would seize on that fact alone to undermine the FBI’s investigation (and by extension Mueller’s) as hopelessly corrupt — and at the moment, that’s not an unreasonable conclusion.