False accusations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia have already cost some of the most senior officials at the FBI and the Department of Justice their reputations, their careers, or both. The widespread wrongdoing raises the question: Where were the honest lawmen and women? Was there no one willing to challenge superiors -- or even just colleagues -- gone rogue?
There may have been at least one. As deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Intelligence, Stuart Evans had the responsibility of vetting spy warrants before submitting them to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In the fall of 2016, the FBI presented Evans with an application for a warrant to capture the communications of volunteer Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The main justification for getting a wire on Page were allegations by former British spy Christopher Steele. Instead of credulously embracing the Steele dossier as so many others did, Evans demanded more information about Steele. He put up bureaucratic roadblocks and manned them stubbornly while asking the essential questions no one else seemed to care about.
Evans came close to saving Justice and the FBI from themselves. But he made one mistake. The story of how that mistake allowed Evans to be outmaneuvered is a lesson in the limits of confronting bureaucracies – even if one is a study in integrity.
The FBI launched operation “Crossfire Hurricane” -- the counterintelligence investigation into whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia – on July 31, 2016. Within weeks the team, led by FBI agent Peter Strzok, was asking for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant. But at that early stage of the investigation, lawyers with the FBI’s Office of General Counsel didn’t think there was enough evidence to establish probable cause. That changed when the Crossfire Hurricane crew obtained the Steele dossier on Sept. 19. Attorneys with the general counsel’s office gave their go-ahead.
A month before the 2016 election, the FBI took to the Justice Department the first official drafts requesting a surveillance warrant on Page. The drafts went to the National Security Division’s Office of Intelligence (OI), whose supervisor was Deputy Assistant Attorney General Evans.
The bureau asserted, based on unsubstantiated claims made by Steele, that Carter Page was coordinating with Russia to throw the U.S. election to Trump. The Justice Department inspector general would later find that “the FISA request form drew almost entirely from Steele's reporting.”
With so much riding on the say-so of a single source, had the FBI done everything it could to determine Steele’s credibility? Did anyone in the Justice Department push back against the bureau? Did anyone insist that more needed to be known about what Steele was up to? These were questions House Intelligence Committee members in July 2017 put to John Carlin, the assistant attorney general in charge of the NSD.
“Was there any advocate or any individual or individuals who seemed to be more active saying, ‘I don’t think we can trust this source, I think we need to delve into this more deeply’?” Utah Republican Chris Stewart asked Carlin.
“I remember them,” Carlin replied, suggesting more than just one person was asking tough questions. But once he started to enumerate, Carlin could recall only a single name. “Stu Evans, the deputy assistant attorney general is the one. I – I don’t remember if there’s someone else at the briefing,” Carlin went on, “but I remember Stu Evans was there and he’s the one [who] said both that this was sensitive and that there was this issue with the source.” Evans wanted more scrutiny of Steele’s motives, and believed that before pursuing a surveillance warrant against someone associated with a presidential campaign, leadership of both the FBI and DOJ should explicitly sign off on the request.
Carlin might have witnessed more instances of skepticism if he hadn’t been in his last weeks at the Justice Department. He left for the private sector Oct. 14; Mary McCord took over as the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the National Security Division on Oct. 17, just three weeks before the election.
A little over a year later, McCord had her turn to be interviewed behind closed doors on Capitol Hill about the FISA fiasco. Trey Gowdy, then a Republican congressman from South Carolina, asked McCord whether there was any evidence that she had been even remotely skeptical regarding the extraordinary story the FBI had presented to the Department of Justice.
“From time to time in the old days,” Gowdy said of his years as a prosecutor, “we would ask law enforcement officers: How do you know that?” How an investigator came by information would tend to affect, in other words, the credibility of the information. “Do you recall asking the FBI: How do you know?”
“Certainly that was done,” McCord said. Not by her, however. “What I know about this is coming to me through those who are responsible for the day-to-day back-and-forth with the agents.” And who were these DoJ officials going back and forth day by day? At first it seems as though McCord will be able to rattle off a list of names: “Stu and certainly …” But then McCord came up short, unable to name anyone else. So she focused on discussing the one person who asked tough questions of the FBI: “Stu Evans certainly talked about questions we had on, you know, the [FISA] application and questions to go back to the bureau with,” McCord said. “I was not the one doing that.”
As detailed in a report on surveillance abuses by Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Evans kept asking questions about Steele’s motivations even as the FBI kept assuring him, inaccurately, that the author of the dossier was a disinterested and unbiased investigator.
On Oct. 7, Evans had the Office of Intelligence ask the Crossfire Hurricane agents whether their ex-British spy “is affiliated with either campaign and/or has contributed to either campaign.”
On Oct. 10, a key member of Crossfire Hurricane responded. Referred to only as “Case Agent 1” in the inspector general’s report, the agent has since been identified by the New York Times as Stephen Somma. His response, quoted in chapter five of the Horowitz report, was not fully forthcoming: Somma told Evans that because Steele was “most likely a foreign national,” he would not have been able to contribute to any U.S. presidential candidate.
Evans recognized that the first part of his question had been ignored, and had the same question sent again to Crossfire Hurricane. Somma again replied that Steele was not a “U.S. person” and had not contributed to any campaign.
Shortly after Evans sent the question back a third time he learned what the FBI had known all along – that Steele was being paid to find dirt on Trump. The Justice Department inspector general would later report that there were no “written communications indicating that anyone on the Crossfire Hurricane team advised [the Office of Intelligence] about the potential or suspected political connections to Steele’s reporting before Evans raised his questions on October 11.”
It came with a bombshell: The FBI told Evans they “assumed” the Hillary Clinton campaign or the Democratic Party was paying for Steele’s “research.” Evans might have expected that the FBI – investigation being its business – would be capable of tracking down a money trail to answer the question of where Steele’s pay was coming from. Instead, Evans had for days been given answers to his questions that seem to have been deliberately worded to avoid giving him the information he sought. Evans was in no mood to give the FBI what it wanted.
Strzok sent a series of messages to the FBI general counsel’s office complaining that Evans was slowing things down, among them:
- “Stu is nervous.”
- ”[Stu] said he wasn’t aware of the fact until a few hours ago that [Steele] was employed to find this information by a named client, in turn hired by an unnamed client presumably affiliated with the Clinton campaign in some manner.”
- “I’m worried about what Stu whispers in Court Advisors ear.”
Strzok also complained to his girlfriend, Lisa Page, a legal adviser to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe:
- “Currently fighting with Stu for this fisa.”
- “Hey-The FISA will probably not go forward without a call from the [Deputy Director].”
Evans’ concerns were “briefed” to FBI Director James Comey and McCabe. Neither thought there was any reason not to move forward with a FISA warrant application. Page saw Evans as the only “holdup” on getting a wiretap approved. She applied what pressure she could. “I communicated you and boss’s green light to Stu earlier, and just sent an email to Stu asking where things stood,” she texted McCabe. “This might take a high-level push.”
Push or no push, who knows how long Evans might have held up the Carter Page FISA warrant application? But Evans made a tactical error: He framed his concerns not as a matter of principle but of prudence. Evans might have stood his ground opposing the warrant application by pointing to how the bureau had withheld the fact that Steele was working, through cut-outs, for the Clinton campaign. He could have insisted that the Steele “reporting” was hopelessly tainted as a partisan political product for which the author had been paid. Instead, Evans characterized the issue as a “prudential question of risk vs. reward.”
The downside was obvious: Eavesdrop on an individual associated with a presidential campaign and Justice and the FBI risk appearing to be interfering with an election. Any possible upside was less clear: Thanks to press leaks, Carter Page knew he was being investigated, Evans noted. That meant Page would assume his lines were tapped and his emails scrutinized, making it unlikely he would communicate anything revealing or damaging by phone or computer. The risk, Evans argued, was not worth the dim prospect of any reward.
The upside/downside equation may have seemed like a reasonable way to approach a difficult problem, but it allowed the FBI to seize the moral high ground. Evans raised the “prudential question” with McCabe, who said he understood the risk but was duty bound not to “pull any punches.” They had to “let the chips fall where they may,” McCabe insisted.
Evans settled for a face-saving, if infamous, footnote to the FISA application. It made the claim that the FBI “speculates” Steele’s paymaster wanted material that could be used against the Trump campaign. Once the footnote was attached to the application, Evans stood down.
“It seems like Stu Evans is the only guy in the whole rotten process who tried to slow things down and asked some questions about what was happening,” a congressional staffer who worked on the House investigation into Russian influence told RealClearInvestigations. “But in the end, it looks like he got steamrolled.”
Evans may not be done with the matter yet. RealClearInvestigations correspondent Paul Sperry reports that he is cooperating with U.S. Attorney John Durham’s probe of wrongdoing at Justice and the FBI. That investigation may prove to be a steamroller of an entirely different sort.