FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court to falsifying a document as part of the bureau’s early-stage probe into whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russian government.
Clinesmith – who previously quit the FBI – is the first person criminally charged in an investigation by John Durham, a federal prosecutor tapped to probe mistakes the FBI made when it sought a warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
It is unclear if Clinesmith has flipped and will be a witness for the Durham probe in the future or simply pleaded guilty to seek a lower sentence.
During a virtual hearing in the U.S. District Court in Washington, Clinesmith admitted to doctoring a CIA email the FBI used in 2017 when it applied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew its application for a secret wiretap to monitor Page.
‘At the time I believed that the information I was providing in the email was accurate, but I am agreeing that the information I inserted into the email was not originally there, and I inserted that information,’ Clinesmith said during the hearing.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg set a sentencing date for Dec. 10.
While Clinesmith could face a statutory maximum of five years in prison, the U.S. sentencing guidelines in his case call for a range of zero to six months in prison, Boasberg said. The crime – making a false statement to the FBI – is the same as the one Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, pleaded guilty to and is now trying to reverse out of.
Last week Donald Trump crowed that a ‘corrupt’ FBI lawyer in ‘James Comey’s very corrupt FBI’ was expected to plead guilty.
‘That’s just the beginning I imagine,’ he said. ‘The fact is they spied on my campaign and they got caught.’ The case does not in fact relate directly to ‘spying’ on the Trump campaign.
Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator, said at the weekend that he believed Clinesmith ‘knows where the bodies are buried,’
He added: ‘Something tells me that Mr Clinesmith knows where the bodies are buried, and if I were in the FBI working on Crossfire Hurricane [the Russia investigation], I would be very worried right now.’
Guilty pleas in probes like Durham’s are often in return for co-operation – as was the case in the Robert Mueller inquiry.
However the hearing and other court documents offered no indication of involvement in Clinesmith’s crime by anyone else.
The Durham investigation, which is also examining the intelligence community’s assessment about Russian election interference, has caused deep concern among Democrats, who view it as a politically charged exercise meant to relitigate an already closed investigation and fear criminal charges or public reports issued so close to the 2020 election could be timed to affect November’s vote.
The investigation has proceeded alongside a parallel effort by Senate Republicans to discredit the Russia probe and as Attorney General William Barr has escalated his own criticism of the FBI’s probe.
Durham has not said who it is targeting – but Trump has made clear that he wants Comey, Barack Obama and his other top intelligence officials charged and has ranted that they committed ‘treason.’
Barr foreshadowed the legal action in a Fox News Channel interview on Thursday night in which he said there would be a development Friday that was ‘not earth shattering’ but would be an indication that the investigation was moving along.
Justice Department policy directs prosecutors not to take investigative steps for the purpose of affecting an election and frowns upon taking public actions in the weeks before an election.
But Barr has said he did not feel constrained by that policy in part because the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is not a target of Durham’s investigation, and Barr has signaled that he will look to make Durham’s findings public before the election.
Clinesmith was referred for potential prosecution by the department’s inspector general’s office, which conducted its own review of the Russia investigation.
That review found that the Russia probe was opened for a legitimate reason and did not find proof of political bias, but it also concluded that the FBI made significant errors and omissions as it applied for secret national security warrants to eavesdrop on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Specifically, the inspector general accused Clinesmith, though not by name, of altering an email about Page to say that he was ‘not a source’ for another government agency.
Page has said he was a source for the CIA. The Justice Department relied on that assertion as it submitted a third and final renewal application in 2017 to eavesdrop on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Clinesmith told the inspector general that from his conversations he did not understand Page to be a source, or a ‘recruited asset,’ or to have a direct relationship with another government agency.
But that relationship was seen as something important to disclose to the FISA court, especially if Page was being tasked by the government to have interactions with Russians.
‘Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email,’ Shur said. ‘It was never his intent to mislead the court or his colleagues, as he believed the information he relayed was accurate, but Kevin understands what he did was wrong and accepts responsibility.’
Durham is the U.S. attorney for Connecticut and a veteran prosecutor with a history of special assignments from Washington. Former Attorney General Eric Holder selected him during the Obama administration to investigate the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques of terror suspects and the destruction of videotapes documenting that interrogation.
Barr appointed Durham just weeks after special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his nearly two-year investigation. Mueller found significant contacts during the 2016 campaign between Russians and Trump associates but did not allege a criminal conspiracy between them.
Mueller also examined multiple episodes in which Trump sought to affect or choke off the Russia investigation, but he did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice.
Barr signaled his skepticism with the Russia investigation right away, concluding that Trump had not obstructed justice even though Mueller had pointedly left that question unresolved.
More recently, Barr stepped in to dismiss the criminal case against former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn even though Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and Barr overruled prosecutors to seek a lighter prison term for Trump confidant Roger Stone. The Republican president commuted Stone’s sentence last month.