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Opinion | The Real F.B.I. Election Culprit (Published 2018)


Hint: It’s not Peter Strzok.

Peter Strzok testified on Thursday before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees.

Peter Strzok testified on Thursday before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

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By Garrett M. Graff

Mr. Graff is a journalist and historian.

In his testimony before two House committees on Thursday, the F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok testified that he could have altered the 2016 election — but didn’t. The information about Russian election interference, he said, “had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”

In hours of always hostile and sometimes even rude questioning, the Republican members of the committees never proved otherwise. The hearing was the latest effort by House Republicans to find any hint that there’s a “deep state” conspiracy against President Trump.

Once again, they came up with nothing. Despite the various investigations into the 2016 election and for all the scrutiny on the F.B.I. and agents like Mr. Strzok, one stone remains largely unturned —  even in the most comprehensive look at the F.B.I., the 500-page report last month from Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general.

As Mr. Horowitz told Capitol Hill last month, his investigation didn’t try to dive into who at the F.B.I. New York field office was driving the leaks that ultimately pushed some of the regrettable decisions that Mr. Horowitz excoriated in that very report.

But looking at available public evidence, the New York bureau’s actions actually did influence the campaign and helped hand the presidency to Donald Trump.

In the Horowitz report, Loretta Lynch, the former attorney general, recalled a conversation with James Comey in which he said, “it’s clear to me that there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton.” F.B.I. agents in that office had a demonstrated propensity for leaks and arguably forced the bureau’s leadership’s hand in the final weeks of the election.

At that time, Rudy Giuliani gave voice on television to what he called the anti-Clinton “revolution going on inside the F.B.I.” Mr. Giuliani, whose former law firm Bracewell & Giuliani represented the F.B.I. Agents Association, seemed to boast in the final days of the campaign that he knew that a twist — like the revelations of emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop — was coming about Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, referring on Fox to “a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days.”

In his testimony on Thursday, Mr. Strzok said that “it caused me great concern” that Mr. Giuliani “had information about that — that he should not have had.”

Similarly, Mr. Giuliani’s longtime friend James Kallstrom, a former head of the New York F.B.I. office, was channeling on TV what he said was the F.B.I.’s anti-Clinton preference. Mr. Kallstrom, who founded a nonprofit that received more than $1.3 million in donations from Mr. Trump, told Megyn Kelly, “The agents are furious.” In one radio interview, Mr. Kallstrom even called the Clintons a “crime family” akin to the New York Mafia: “It’s like organized crime,” he said, and “the Clinton Foundation is a cesspool.”

In those final days, F.B.I. leaders appeared to be caught in a whirlwind of anti-Clinton rumors and speculation. In his report, Mr. Horowitz acknowledges the role that the threat of leaks played in the F.B.I. leadership’s decision to make the news about Mr. Weiner’s laptop public. Numerous agents and officials confirmed it: Mr. Strzok and Lisa Page, an F.B.I. lawyer at the time; James Rybicki, then the F.B.I. chief of staff; James Baker, then the F.B.I. general counsel; and Sally Yates, then deputy attorney general.

“The discussion was somebody in New York will leak this,” Mr. Baker said. “If we don’t put something out, somebody will leak it.”

“Numerous witnesses connected this concern about leaks specifically” to the New York office and “told us that F.B.I. leadership suspected that F.B.I. personnel” in that office were “responsible for leaks of information in other matters,” the inspector general’s report said. “Even accepting Comey’s assertion that leaks played no role in his decision, we found that, at a minimum, a fear of leaks influenced the thinking of those who were advising him.”

Ms. Yates told investigators that the F.B.I. explicitly cited the threat of leaks in explaining its decision to go public to the Justice Department. As she recalled, one reason the F.B.I. officials gave for why they felt Mr. Comey had to go to Congress “is that they felt confident that the New York field office would leak it and that it would come out regardless of whether he advised Congress or not.”

The F.B.I. agent corps today overwhelmingly fits the demographic profile of a Trump voter. During the 2016 campaign, in The Guardian, one agent said, “The F.B.I. is Trumpland.” In his testimony, Mr. Strzok all but laughed out loud when committee members pressed him Thursday on whether the whole F.B.I. was made up of Democrats.

The New York field office, one of only three headed not by a special-agent-in-charge but by a full assistant director, has always been a particular challenge for bureau leaders — it’s fiercely independent, combative and notoriously leaky. The office, which works closely with the local United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, a job held by both Mr. Comey and Mr. Giuliani, is sometimes referred to inside the Justice Department as the “Sovereign District of New York” for charting its own course.

The office has long been a source of meddlesome leaks, in part because of the intermixing of F.B.I. agents and New York Police Department officers who have close relationships with the city’s press corps. The lowest point in these relations came in 2009, when the investigation of the would-be subway bomber Najibullah Zazi — a critical emergency investigation that had remained secret when it was focused in Denver, Zazi’s hometown — leaked quickly once the would-be attacker and case arrived in New York, both to the media and to the suspect’s family itself.

Another key part of the fear of leaks in 2016 grew out of the cultural differences between the counterintelligence side of the F.B.I. — which handled the original Clinton email investigation and proved all-but-leak-free — and the more leaky criminal side, which was responsible for the Weiner laptop investigation and stumbled across the stray Clinton emails. “I knew that there were leaks coming — or appeared to be leaks about criminal investigation of the Clintons coming out of New York,” Mr. Comey told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this spring.

We need to understand the truth of the 2016 election — not just for the record, but to take steps to prevent any interference in future elections. Mr. Strzok survived the worst the House Republicans could throw at him, including a threat to charge him with contempt for refusing to answer questions on the advice of the F.B.I.’s counsel about an ongoing investigation — a hallmark of the rule of law in ordinary times. Until congressional overseers make a serious attempt to get to the bottom of the New York field office’s role in the election, we’ll know they’re not serious about learning the truth.

Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a journalist and historian.

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