Hmmm: FBI search of Mar-a-Lago run by same counter-intel group as Crossfire Hurricane

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Is this a conflict of interest, or business as usual at the FBI … or both? RealClearInvestigations reported yesterday that the same unit running the FBI’s probe of Donald Trump and the search of Mar-a-Lago also conducted the botched Russia-collusion probe that used the discredited Steele dossier to go after Trump in 2017-18. Paul Sperry writes that one key figure in the earlier investigation has a lead role in this one as well:

The FBI’s nine-hour, 30-agent raid of the former president’s Florida estate is part of a counterintelligence case run out of Washington – not Miami, as has been widely reported – according to FBI case documents and sources with knowledge of the matter. The bureau’s counterintelligence division led the 2016-2017 Russia “collusion” investigation of Trump, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane.”

Although the former head of Crossfire Hurricane, Peter Strzok, was fired after the disclosure of his vitriolic anti-Trump tweets, several members of his team remain working in the counterintelligence unit, the sources say, even though they are under active investigation by both Durham and the bureau’s disciplinary arm, the Office of Professional Responsibility. The FBI declined to respond to questions about any role they may be taking in the Mar-a-Lago case.

In addition, a key member of the Crossfire team – Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten – has continued to be involved in politically sensitive investigations, including the ongoing federal probe of potentially incriminating content found on the abandoned laptop of President Biden’s son Hunter Biden, according to recent correspondence between the Senate Judiciary Committee and FBI Director Christopher Wray. FBI whistleblowers have alleged that Auten tried to falsely discredit derogatory evidence against Hunter Biden during the 2020 campaign by labeling it Russian “disinformation,” an assessment that caused investigative activity to cease.

Auten has been allowed to work on sensitive cases even though he has been under internal investigation since 2019, when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred him for disciplinary review for his role in vetting a Hillary Clinton campaign-funded dossier used by the FBI to obtain a series of wiretap warrants to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Horowitz singled out Auten for cutting a number of corners in the verification process and even allowing information he knew to be incorrect slip into warrant affidavits and mislead the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

Let’s tackle the counterargument here first. Assuming Sperry’s sources are accurate, how unusual would it be for the FBI to run this investigation through its counterintelligence unit? Not at all, or at the very least the FBI would have a pretty good argument for that decision. The search of Mar-a-Lago was predicated — even if it was just a predicate — on the mishandling of classified material, likely involving intelligence matters. That type of investigation would almost certainly be tasked to teams with experience in matters of classification, documents handling, etc. It’s no coincidence that the statutes involved in that probe are called the Espionage Act, after all. That would definitely fall in this unit’s purview.

The inclusion of Brian Auten in this effort would be somewhat less explicable, however. Auten’s credibility issues aren’t limited to the Russia-collusion operation that blew up in the FBI’s face, either. Just three weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) demanded answers from FBI director Christopher Wray to allegations from whistleblowers that senior FBI agents participated in a politicized effort to discourage coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop and the potential crimes it might have exposed. Guess whose name popped up in that letter, too?

It is further alleged that in August 2020, FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten opened an assessment which was used by a FBI Headquarters (“FBI HQ”) team to improperly discredit negative Hunter Biden information as disinformation and caused investigative activity to cease. Based on allegations, verified and verifiable derogatory information on Hunter Biden was falsely labeled as disinformation. …

Importantly, it’s been alleged to my office that Auten’s assessment was opened in August 2020, which is the same month that Senator Johnson and I received an unsolicited and unnecessary briefing from the FBI that purportedly related to our Biden investigation and a briefing for which the contents were later leaked in order paint the investigation in a false light.

That seems a little too coincidental for comfort, no? Auten seems to make a habit of participating in politically sensitive FBI operations. It’s not clear how much Auten is involved from Sperry’s reporting, but assuming that his participation is significant, it raises a lot of questions. That’s even more true when considering that Grassley made a point of publicly pointing out Auten as a particular concern from whistleblowers alleging that the FBI disseminated propaganda ahead of the 2020 election.

The FBI needs to explain Auten’s ubiquity in politically sensitive decisions and operations, especially — as Perry points out — Auten got specifically referred for further investigation by Inspector General Michael Horowitz for potential misconduct in relation to the Crossfire Hurricane probe. Wray testified last month than a number of those agents are still undergoing a “disciplinary review,” Sperry notes:

Auten has been allowed to work on sensitive cases even though he has been under internal investigation since 2019, when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred him for disciplinary review for his role in vetting a Hillary Clinton campaign-funded dossier used by the FBI to obtain a series of wiretap warrants to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Horowitz singled out Auten for cutting a number of corners in the verification process and even allowing information he knew to be incorrect slip into warrant affidavits and mislead the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

In congressional testimony this month, Wray confirmed that “a number of” former Crossfire Hurricane team members are still employed at the bureau while undergoing disciplinary review. In the meantime, Wray has walled off the former Russiagate investigators only from participating in FISA wiretap applications, according to the sources.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked Wray for copies of recent case files and reports generated by Auten and whether he is included among the team the FBI has assembled to determine which of the seized Trump records fall within the scope of its counterespionage investigation and which fall outside of it.

“It is a disgrace that Auten is still even employed by the bureau,” said 27-year FBI veteran Michael Biasello. “I would substitute other analysts and agents.”

Assuming again that Sperry’s sources are accurate, this all seems very curious. Why would the FBI  have assigned Auten to this investigation, with all of its obvious political risks, after the Horowitz report and especially after Grassley’s letter last month?

That seems like a pretty good question to ask Wray the next time he’s in front of Congress, along with this one: why is the “disciplinary review” from the Horowitz referral taking years to accomplish? If any of the agents involved are still working on cases related to either Trump or the Bidens, it’s yet another hit on the FBI’s credibility as a non-political law enforcement agency.

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