The FBI had little problem leaking “unverified" dirt from Russian sources on Donald Trump and his campaign aides – and even basing FISA wiretaps on it. But according to the Justice Department’s inspector general, the bureau is refusing to allow even members of Congress with top security clearance to see intercepted material alleging political interference by President Obama’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch.
That material – which has been outlined in press reports – consists of unverified accounts intercepted from putative Russian sources in which the head of the Democratic National Committee allegedly implicates the Hillary Clinton campaign and Lynch in a secret deal to fix the Clinton email investigation.
“It is remarkable how this Justice Department is protecting the corruption of the Obama Justice Department,” said Tom Fitton, president of Washington-based watchdog Judicial Watch, which is suing for the material.
Lynch and Clinton officials as well as the DNC chairman at the time, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have denied the allegations and characterized them as Russian disinformation.
True or false, the material is consequential because it appears to have influenced former FBI Director James B. Comey’s decision to break with bureau protocols because he didn’t trust Lynch. In his recent book, Comey said he took the reins in the Clinton email probe, announcing Clinton should not be indicted, because of a “development still unknown to the American public” that “cast serious doubt” on Lynch’s credibility – clearly the intercepted material.
If the material documents an authentic exchange between Lynch and a Clinton aide, it would appear to be strong evidence that the Obama administration put partisan political considerations ahead of its duty to enforce the law.
If the material is a fabrication, it may constitute the most fruitful effort by the Russians to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. For if Comey had not gone around Lynch and given his July 2016 press conference clearing Clinton, he almost certainly would not have publicly announced the reopening for the case just prior to the election – an event Clinton and her allies blame for her surprising loss to Trump.
The information remains so secret that Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz had to censor it from his recently released 500-plus-page report on the FBI’s investigation of Clinton, and even withhold it from Congress.
The contents of the secret intelligence document — which purport to show that Lynch informed the Clinton campaign she’d make sure the FBI didn't push too hard — were included in the inspector general’s original draft. But in the official IG report issued June 14, the information was tucked into a classified appendix to the report and entirely blanked out.
“The information was classified at such a high level by the intelligence community that it limited even the members [of Congress] who can see it, as well as the staffs,” Horowitz explained last week to annoyed Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight authority over Justice and the FBI.
He said he has asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray to work with the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to determine if the material can be rewritten to allow congressional oversight. Once the material is appropriately redacted, including protecting alleged “sources and methods,” Horowitz said, he hopes members can then go to the “tank,” or secure reading room in the basement of the Capitol Building, and read it.
“We very much want the committee to see this information,” Horowitz said.
Congressional sources told RealClearInvestigations the material is classified "TS/SCI," which stands for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information.
Such security precautions were not taken with the Steele dossier, which alleges corruption within the Trump campaign. Although the FBI and CIA used it as both an investigative and intelligence resource, its contents were readily shared with Congress and widely leaked to the media.
The dossier formed the basis for warrants to spy on the Trump campaign and is being used by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a roadmap in his continuing investigation into possible Trump ties to Russia.
In contrast, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times have accepted the denials from Lynch and the Clinton campaign, dismissing the compromising information as unreliable and possibly fake. In his report, Horowitz quotes non-FBI “witnesses" describing the secret information as “objectively false.” Those witnesses included Lynch.
The DOJ and FBI have not publicly commented on the authenticity of the material. No one has explained why Comey believed it to be serious enough to cut Lynch out of the decision loop.
What is known, based on press leaks and a letter Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley sent Lynch, is that in March 2016, the FBI received a batch of hacked documents from U.S. intelligence agencies that had access to stolen emails stored on Russian networks. One of the intercepted documents revealed an alleged email from then-DNC Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz to an operative working for billionaire Democratic fundraiser George Soros. It claimed Lynch had assured the Clinton campaign that investigators and prosecutors would go easy on the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee regarding her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. Lynch allegedly made the promise directly to Clinton political director Amanda Renteria.
The FBI apparently took the document seriously but never interviewed anyone named in it until Clinton’s case was closed by Comey in July 2016. The next month, the FBI quizzed Lynch informally about the allegations. Comey reportedly also confronted the attorney general with the sensitive document and was told to leave her office after getting a frosty reception. No other parties mentioned in the document have been interviewed by the FBI.
In his new memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey, clearly referring to the document given the timing and circumstances, said he relied on it in part to make his unilateral and controversial decision to publicly announce the results of the Clinton investigation without Lynch. He said he worried the attorney general might be viewed as “politically compromised” if the secret information leaked, thereby undermining the “integrity" of the FBI’s investigation.
Comey said he had doubts about Lynch’s independence as early as September 2015 when she called him into her office and asked him to minimize the probe by calling it “a matter” instead of an “investigation,” which aligned with Clinton campaign talking points. Then, just days before FBI agents interviewed Clinton in July 2016, Lynch privately met with former President Bill Clinton on her government plane while it was parked on an airport tarmac in Phoenix. In a text message that has since been brought to light, the lead investigators on the case, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, made clear at the time their understanding that Lynch knew that “no charges will be brought” against Clinton.
Renteria, the Clinton campaign official, who ran for governor of California but failed to secure a top-two spot in the primary, insists the intelligence citing her was disinformation created by Russian officials to dupe Americans and create discord and turmoil during the election.
“It was simply made up by the Russians,” she asserted in a recent tweet, ironically echoing complaints by Trump defenders about the Steele dossier.
Rep. Wasserman Schultz, who is up for re-election in the House, also denied the charges, though she acknowledged prior contacts with both Lynch and Renteria.
Lynch, for her part, has never been asked directly and under oath by Congress about the allegation in the document. But in a July 2016 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, she swore, “I have not spoken to anyone on either the [Clinton] campaign or transition or any staff members affiliated with them.”
On Thursday, Grassley announced he wants to subpoena Lynch to testify before his committee about her role in the Clinton email probe. But he said he has to first convince the top Democrat on the panel, Dianne Feinstein, who seems disinclined to support issuing a subpoena. “The ranking member refused to agree to compel” Lynch to testify, Grassley said in a statement earlier in the week.
Under Judiciary Committee rules, the chairman and the ranking member must both agree on the use of subpoenas.
Hill sources say Feinstein’s reluctance may owe to her close relationship with one of Lynch’s top aides at the Justice Department. During the 2016 campaign, Paige Herwig served as counselor to the attorney general, and after Lynch left the department in January 2017, Herwig became Feinstein’s deputy general counsel. Herwig is now working with Clinton’s former press secretary on a campaign to oppose Trump’s judicial nominees.
Feinstein is also close to Renteria, who worked as a Feinstein staffer last decade.
Feinstein argued that Lynch "would only be able to speak to the Clinton email investigation, which has been investigated ad nauseam, including a 500-plus-page inspector general report that we had a hearing on, so she wouldn’t have anything to add to the committee’s current inquiries."