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FBI attorney who altered email about Carter Page's work with the CIA will get probation

The former FBI agent who altered an email about Carter Page’s connections to the CIA won’t be spending any time in prison. Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty last year to altering an email that was used to convince the FISA court that continued surveillance of Page was warranted:

Clinesmith admitted that in June 2017 he sent an altered email to an FBI agent that indicated a target of court-ordered FBI surveillance, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, was “not a source” for the Central Intelligence Agency. The statement, passed along as the FBI was applying for a third extension of surveillance of Page, made Page’s actions seem more suspicious by downplaying his past cooperation with the CIA.

Today Clinesmith given a sentence of 12 months probation after a judge accepted the argument that he had merely been trying to save himself some time and was not motivated by politics.

Clinesmith insisted that he thought the statement was true at the time and only altered the message to save himself the hassle of procuring another email from the CIA. Prosecutors contested that claim, arguing that the FBI lawyer intended to mislead his colleague, but Boasberg sided with the defense on that point.

“My view of the evidence is that Mr. Clinesmith likely believed that what he said about Mr. Page was true,” Boasberg said. “By altering the email, he was saving himself some work and taking an inappropriate shortcut.”

The Washington Post has a more detailed explanation of how this mistake allegedly came about.

Page had provided information to the CIA as “operational contact,” and when Clinesmith sought clarity, a CIA liaison told him as much, using jargon and pointing to documents that made his role clear. But, according to Clinesmith’s lawyers, Clinesmith believed Page was not a direct source, but rather, a subsource of the agency.

He said as much to an FBI supervisor inquiring about the matter, and — when the supervisor asked if the CIA had put that in writing — forwarded an email from the liaison, but added the text, “not a ‘source.’ ”

So Clinesmith misunderstood the message and then passed on that misunderstanding to his boss and the corrected the email to match his misunderstanding so he wouldn’t have to ask for clarification.

Of course if he had asked, he would have learned that he’d misunderstood the message in the first place. Then the FBI would have had to report this to the FISA court. But Judge Boasberg seemed to think there were so many problems with the FISA application that it’s not clear fixing this one would have changed the outcome. “It is not at all clear to me the FISA warrant….would not have been signed but for this error,” he said.

Prosecutors had been seeking a sentence of 3-6 months in prison. They argued that partisan motives on Clinesmith’s part could not be ruled out.

Durham’s team highlighted anti-Trump texts Clinesmith had sent and argued that it was “plausible that his strong political views and/or personal dislike of [Trump] made him more willing to engage in the fraudulent and unethical conduct to which he has pled guilty.” Clinesmith was suspended for two weeks over the messages.

If you’ve forgotten, Clinesmith texted “Viva le Resistance!” during a discussion of President Trump in November 2016. More on the prosecutors argument:

Prosecutors…cast Clinesmith’s actions as more nefarious, and advocated for a sentence “of incarceration that is at least between the middle and upper end” of what sentencing guidelines called for. In discussing whether Page was an FBI source with the FBI supervisor, they wrote, Clinesmith recognized that disclosing such a fact would be “a terrible footnote,” because it would mean the FBI had hid that information in prior applications. They wrote that Clinesmith’s misconduct had “fueled public distrust of the FBI and of the entire FISA program itself.”

“The act of altering the email to change its meaning may seem simple and a momentary lapse of judgment on the part of the defendant, but the resulting harm is immeasurable,” Scarpelli said, adding that Clinesmith’s assertion that he genuinely believed Page was not a source was “fanciful.”

Fanciful is how it strikes me as well. Facing prison, Clinesmith would rather be seen as incompetent and lazy than partisan. It seems to me he is getting off easy for an intentional act that may very well have convinced the FISA court the FBI was barking up the wrong tree.

For his part, Carter Page was sympathetic to what Clinesmith was going through: “I know what it is like to have your life destroyed, although in my case, it didn’t happen because of something I myself did.”