Old-timers at Langley must be licking their chops over this news from CNN. Having the CIA investigate their rivals at the FBI for potential counterespionage wrongdoing has to be a bucket-list item for a few of them. For the rest of us, though, it sends a signal that the issues at the heart of what came to be known as Operation Crossfire Hurricane might not be limited to procedural defects:
Attorney General William Barr is working closely with the CIA to review the origins of the Russia investigation and surveillance issues surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, according to a source familiar with the matter, broadening an effort that the President has long demanded to involve all major national security agencies.
Barr is working in close collaboration with CIA Director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray, the source said.
There had been speculation as to why Haspel had been spotted at the Justice Department in recent weeks. Wray testified last week he was assisting Barr.
It’s been a long time since the rivalry between the two agencies have been palpably toxic, but perhaps not long enough. Until now, though, the CIA has been conspicuously absent from the Russiagate hysteria except to confirm that Russia did indeed conduct a significant operation to interfere with the 2016 election. While that conclusion is still weirdly controversial in some quarters, Russia has run operations like that for decades around the world, so much so that the better question to ask is why the US didn’t prepare better for it in 2015-16. It’s not like the government wasn’t warned about it.
The entry of the CIA and ODNI into the investigation now certainly should pique a little curiosity. Are they being brought into the probe strictly as consultants on proper counterespionage tactics and strategy, or did the CIA have something to do with developing the intel for the initial suspicions of Russian penetration into the Trump campaign? Or perhaps some experience in dealing with Christopher Steele that might be relevant to discerning the FBI’s motivations? The FISA warrant on Carter Page is still the crux of the issue, and anything related to Steele’s reliability and any CIA communications on that regard might be critical to whether the FBI misled the court to get that warrant.
For the moment, the CIA might just be consultants. Despite the appointment of John Durham to head the probe, the New York Times reported last night that it’s still just a review rather than a criminal investigation:
The federal prosecutor tapped to scrutinize the origins of the Russia investigation is conducting only a review for now and has not opened any criminal inquiry, a person familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.
The prosecutor, John H. Durham, the United States attorney for Connecticut, is broadly examining the government’s collection of intelligence involving the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians, the person said. The additional details about the scope and limits of his role emerged a day after The New York Times reported that Attorney General William P. Barr had put Mr. Durham in charge of scrutinizing the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation during the 2016 election.
While Mr. Durham has conducted criminal investigations into allegations of high-level wrongdoing by law enforcement and national security officials, including the F.B.I.’s handling of organized crime informants and the C.I.A.’s torture of detainees, his new review does not rise to that level, the person said.
The distinction means that Mr. Durham for now will not wield the sort of law enforcement powers that come with an open criminal investigation, such as the ability to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify. Instead, he will have the authority only to read documents the government has already gathered and to request voluntary witness interviews.
That seems a bit curious, however. The Department of Justice already had John Huber on hand to “review” the case being compiled by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is reportedly wrapping up his “review” in the next few weeks. If all that Barr wanted was a “review,” he could have left Huber in place and let Durham work on other business.
Durham’s experience in dealing with corruption in the FBI suggests that Barr thinks more than a “review” will be needed no matter how it’s categorized at the moment. A review probably wouldn’t need to involve CIA director Gina Haspel and DNI Dan Coats, either.