Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray that referred to a May 2016 draft of remarks then-FBI Director James Comey later gave that exonerated Hillary Clinton of criminal charges for her use of an unsecured private email server while she worked as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Johnson wrote that the heavy edits significantly changed the "tone and substance'' of the remarks. In the December 14 letter, Johnson is demanding information about the probe. This is the second letter this month from Johnson to Rosenstein that has gone unanswered. On December 6, Johnson demanded copies of texts between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
Comey initially wrote that the FBI believed that Clinton and her aides were "grossly negligent'' in their handling of classified information, which is language used in the relevant criminal statute that would have incurred prosecution. However, the remarks were edited to say that Clinton and her aides were "extremely careless'' in using a private email server. Where Comey initially wrote that it was "reasonably likely'' that "hostile actors'' had gained access to Clinton's email server and her classified communications, the text was edited to say that such an intrusion was merely possible.
The FBI decided that criminal charges were not warranted. It was thus that Comey and the FBI began working on a public statement.
The document mentioned by Johnson shows line-by-line edits, although it not yet clear who made them. Johnson's letter came after the release of politically charged text messages sent by FBI agent Peter Strzok to FBI attorney Lisa Page, with whom he was romantically involved. Strzok, who was in the room as Clinton was ultimately interviewed, was later assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller's team to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Strzok was removed from the team in August when anti-Trump and pro-Clinton text messages were discovered by a separate investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice. Strzok was also involved in the investigation that ultimately led to the dismissal of Michael Flynn from his post as Trump's national security advisor. Flynn pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI.
Peter Strzok and Lisa Page
The edits discovered by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee exonerating Hillary Clinton went far beyond what was previously known. There are specific edits made by senior FBI agents in drafts of Comey’ statement exchanged with Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. These included not only FBI agent Peter Strzok, E.W. "Bill" Priestap (Strzok’s supervisor), Jonathan Moffa, and an unnamed employee who has been identified by Newsweek as DOJ Deputy General Counsel Trisha Anderson. Concerns have been raised that the edits reveal a coordinated conspiracy among them to decriminalize Clinton's conduct by omitting key information, minimizing the intelligence community’s role in the investigation, and also changing legal terms and phraseology.
Mentioned in the letter are immunity agreements conceded in June 2016 by the FBI to Obama aides Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson. Mills and Samuelson decided on which of Clinton’s emails were to be destroyed before the remaining 30,000 were surrendered to the Department of State. Additionally, the FBI agreed to destroy evidence on electronic devices owned by Mills and Samuelson.
Sen. Johnson's letter reads:
“According to documents produced by the FBI, FBI employees exchanged proposed edits to the draft statement. On May 6, Deputy Director McCabe forwarded the draft statement to other senior FBI employees, including Peter Strzok, E.W. Priestap, Jonathan Moffa, and an employee on the Office of General Counsel whose name has been redacted. While the precise dates of the edits and identities of the editors are not apparent from the documents, the edits appear to change the tone and substance of Director Comey's statement in at least three respects.”
The 'insurance policy' in case of Trump's election
Johnson's letter also questions an "insurance policy,” which Strzok mentions in a text to his mistress, FBI attorney Lisa Page: "I want to believe the path you threw out to consideration in Andy's office -- that there's no way he gets elected -- but I'm afraid we can't take that risk." It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40...." There are concerns over whether the "insurance policy" referenced by Strzok was the the salacious uncorroborated dossier that was produced by opposition research firm Fusion GPS at the behest of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Fusion GPS hired Nellie Ohr, the wife of FBI Agent Bruce Ohr, to assist in producing the dossier.
Strzok then became the lead investigator in late July, 2016, of the alleged Russian meddling in the election, reporting FBI Counterintelligence Director Bill Priestap, who is believed to have told then-FBI Director James Comey not to inform congress that the FBI had launched a counterintelligence operation against then-candidate Trump, according to Comey's March 20, 2017, testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.
The letter from the Senate Committee concludes; "the edits to Director Comey's public statement, made months prior to the conclusion of the FBI's investigation of Secretary Clinton's conduct, had a significant impact on the FBI's public evaluation of the implications of her actions. This effort, seen in the light of the personal animus toward then-candidate Trump by senior FBI agents leading the Clinton investigation and their apparent desire to create an "insurance policy" against Mr. Trump's election, raise profound questions about the FBI's role and possible interference in the 2016y presidential election and the role of the same agents in Special Counsel Mueller's investigation of President Trump."
Johnson then asks the FBI to answer six questions:
- Please provide the names of the Department of Justice (DOJ) employees who comprised the "mid-year review team" during the FBI's investigation of Secretary Clinton's use of a private email server.
- Please identify all FBI, DOJ, or other federal employees who edited or reviewed Director Comey's July 5, 2016 statement. Please identify which individual made the marked changes in the documents produced to the Committee.
- Please identify which FBI employee repeatedly changed the language in the final draft statement that described Secretary Clinton's behavior as "grossly negligent" to "extremely careless." What evidence supported these changes?
- Please identify which FBI employee edited the draft statement to remove the reference to the Intelligence Community. On what basis was this change made?
- Please identify which FBI employee edited the draft statement to downgrade the FBI's assessment that it was "reasonably likely" that hostile actors had gained access to Secretary Clinton's private email account to merely that than [sic] intrusion was "possible." What evidence supported these changes?
- Please provide unredacted copies of the drafts of Director Comey's statement, including comment bubbles, and explain the basis for the redactions produced to date.
Editing out 'gross negligence'
According to the federal statute, 18 U.S. Code § 793, "Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information" specifically uses the phrase "gross negligence." By using that phrase, former FBI Director Comey would have essentially declared that Clinton was in violation of the law. According to Black's Law Dictionary, gross negligence is defined as,”‘A severe degree of negligence taken as reckless disregard,” and “Blatant indifference to one's legal duty, other's safety, or their rights.” However, the phrase extremely careless bears no weight of law.
Edits that exonerated Hillary Clinton
When Peter Strzok was selected for Special Counsel Mueller’s probe of the supposed collusion by Trump’s campaign and Russians this year, he was already known to be the agent responsible in 2016 for downgrading the language used regarding Clinton’s conduct. It was only after the internal FBI probe revealed his exchanges with his mistress that he was kicked off Mueller’s team.
McCabe's team also removed a key justification for defining Clinton’s conduct as "gross negligence," i.e. the “sheer volume" of the classified material on Clinton's non-secure email server. The original draft contended that the "sheer volume" of the classified material "supports an inference that the participants were grossly negligent in their handling of that information." However, this justification was removed. Comey’s public statement also failed to mention an reference to the intelligence community's participation in the investigation.
The original statement read:
"[W]e have done extensive work with the assistance of our colleagues elsewhere in the Intelligence Community to understand what indications there might be of compromise by hostile actors in connection with the private email operation."
The edited version removed the references to the intelligence community:
"[W]e have done extensive work [removed] to understand what indications there might be of compromise by hostile actors in connection with the personal e-mail operation."
'Hostile actors' edited out
Also, then-FBI Director James Comey's statement was edited to change the assessment of whether it was “reasonably likely” that Clinton’s server was hacked by hostile actors (e.g. foreign governments) to that it was "possible." This meant that another justification was eliminated for calling Clinton’s conduct “gross negligence."
The original draft read:
"Given the combination of factors, we assess it is reasonably likely that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's private email account."
The edited version from Comey's July 5 2016, statement read:
"Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal e-mail account."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from these matters. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has not yet named a second Special Counsel to examine how the FBI concluded in 2016 that Hillary Clinton did not engage in possibly criminal “gross negligence” nor whether the FBI and DOJ officials were actively colluding to sunder the President Trump and his administration for partisan purposes.
'What are they trying to cover up?'
Appearing on Fox News Channel on Thursday, Senator Johnson told show host Tucker Carlson that the FBI has not handed over the information he has requested. Referring to the editing of Comey’s statements of last year, Johnson said he fears that the FBI has been used as a "political weapon."
Johnson said, "They don't believe they need to or they have to. They're not going to be compelled to, apparently.” He said that the FBI’s refusal to hand over the requested information is to be likened to the conduct of IRS official Lois Lerner Johnson, who was found to have blocked the nonprofit status of Tea Party-affiliated groups. Americans are losing confidence in the FBI. Johnson declared, "we've seen the politicization of the FBI."
"I have no idea why the FBI doesn't just come clean and provide this information to Congress. What are they trying to hide? What are they trying to cover up?" Johnson asked.