Mail server

Jurors hear contrasting stories about FBI’s handling of Trump-Russia secret server claims

Special counsel John Durham has accused Sussmann of falsely telling the office he brought the Alfa Bank tip in his personal capacity, not on behalf of any of his clients, which could affect management tip by the FBI. But Sussmann’s defense team stressed that the office was well aware of Sussmann’s ties to the Democratic Party and that the circumstances of the tip were irrelevant to the FBI’s decision to prosecute her and ultimately found her to be unfounded. .

The current trial is the first courtroom test of Durham’s long investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, and he has used the Sussmann prosecution to go public with much of his case. Sussmann’s team, however, cast doubt on the allegations, describing them as a desperate effort to insert salacious and misleading evidence into the public record.

So far, Sussmann’s trial has featured testimony from a series of high-profile witnesses, including Democratic Party attorney Marc Elias, former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and former senior officials from the FBI.

Despite Pientka’s messages, other witnesses described the office’s reaction to the Alfa Bank board as relatively modest – a limited offshoot of a much larger and more urgent investigation into Russian interference in the elections. 2016, and any evidence of Trump campaign involvement.

Indeed, current and former FBI witnesses appeared to have hazy memories of aspects of the Alfa Bank episode and indicated that their memories were heavily influenced by the notes, emails and messages they exchanged at the office. era, which were discovered by the Durham team.

Bill Priestap, who headed the FBI’s counterintelligence division in 2016, said he remembered regular briefings on the broader Trump-Russia investigation, known as the Crossfire Hurricane, but didn’t remember. did not recall similar briefings on Alfa Bank.

“It wasn’t something that I was regularly told about and if I remember correctly, in the end it didn’t amount to much,” said Priestap, who is now retired from the enforcement agency. of the law. “It fell apart.”

Asked about Pientka’s assessment that management was “excited”, Priestap said he did not recall this reaction from FBI management or FBI Director James Comey in particular.

Perhaps more importantly, the description of the FBI’s handling of Alfa Bank information allowed Sussmann’s lawyers to remind the jury of the significant concern within the office about the links between the Trump campaign and the Russia, which have been investigated by the FBI and special advocates for nearly three years.

Jurors saw an FBI internal intelligence report on Monday indicating that the FBI considered Alfa Bank to be closely linked to Putin.

“In 1998, Putin was on Alfa Bank’s payroll,” the report said, in addition to detailing other alleged links between the bank, its owners and Putin.

Witnesses to Sussmann’s trial continued to provide murky accounts of how FBI personnel were asked to handle the issue of the DNC-connected cybersecurity attorney during the prosecution of the allegations he relayed.

Agent Ryan Gaynor said he was told Sussmann’s identity was considered “closed”, but he did not recall being told why.

“If I was given a reason at the time, I don’t remember what it was,” Gaynor said.

Gaynor on Monday became the focal point of efforts by Sussmann’s defense team to poke holes in the prosecution case.

Gaynor provided two important pieces of evidence to prosecutors: asserting the existence of the “close hold” — which he says prevented him from sharing Sussmann’s identity with the Chicago-based officers conducting the investigation — and testify that had he been aware of Sussmann’s potential motives for filing the allegations, he would not have devoted his attentions to the case, turning away from other matters.

But Sussmann’s attorney, Michael Bosworth, hammered Gaynor’s credibility, noting that the FBI agent’s story changed over several interviews with the Durham team, eventually ending with the most incriminating part of the story that prosecutors rolled out against Sussmann.

Bosworth noted that the account Gaynor gave during an October 2020 interview with Durham prosecutors led them to warn him that he was no longer merely a witness in their investigation, but was now doing under investigation, which means he could face criminal charges.

“I was in great danger,” Gaynor said. “It’s very disturbing as a DOJ employee that now the Department of Justice is watching you.”

Gaynor said he was told his status was ‘in jeopardy’ after saying he could not recall any instructions given to other officers that they could not contact the person who passed on the server allegations to the FBI.

Gaynor said that after his interview he re-read the case files and remembered he had spoken to others at the FBI about the “closure” designation. Bosworth suggested Gaynor changed his account to please prosecutors, but the agent said his memories were refreshed by looking at his own notes.

Former FBI General Counsel James Baker said last week that while he hasn’t widely shared details of Sussmann’s role with others at the FBI, he did tell Priestap, who wrote it. Baker said he did not recall refusing to release the name to others at the FBI.

Heide and other agents in Chicago seeking to verify the claims asked if they could find out who provided the data and accompanying analytical white papers to the office.

“We really want to question the source of this information. How do we find out who this guy is and how do we get this information? Heide wrote to Gaynor in an October 3, 2016 email.

Testifying for the prosecution, Gaynor said he felt revealing the source was unnecessary at this stage as officers were still trying to trace the alleged data links. He said it was eventually determined to be spam email sent by a marketing server.

The FBI “quietly” contacted a cybersecurity firm, Mandiant, and learned that the company had reviewed the allegations and found them to be baseless, Gaynor said. However, he testified that the FBI avoided further steps like interviewing outside technology experts because they feared it would lead to reports, just before the presidential election, that the FBI was investigating the matter.

“The decision was made that doing an open interview so close to the election could inadvertently impact the election,” Gaynor said. “I thought that in a politically charged environment, the ones and zeros would answer the question of whether or not there was a threat to national security.”

Gaynor said officials were also concerned that the FBI openly investigating could also discourage those who took the case to the FBI from speaking to the media.

“We are not meant to engage in overt activity that could be construed as deterring people from engaging in First Amendment-protected speech,” he said.

Sussmann’s defense also went to great lengths to raise questions about Gaynor’s credibility, questioning his memory of the events in question.

Defense attorney Michael Bosworth has suggested that Gaynor’s memory has evolved over time, particularly on the central issue of the case: whether Sussmann said he was presenting the so-called secret server allegations independently the Clinton campaign or the DNC. Gaynor said he recalled being under the impression during another conversation at the FBI in 2016 that the server information came from an attorney who worked for the DNC, but said he brought the information through him. -same.

Bosworth said tapes of Gaynor’s interviews by the Durham team and his grand jury testimony show Gaynor never mentioned this until he was in a meeting with prosecutors ten years ago. days.

“I don’t believe that came out of an interview,” Gaynor admitted.

“Not even once?” Bosworth asked skeptically.

“Okay,” Gaynor said.

The jurors also heard from a former Chicago FBI agent, Allison Sands, who prepared a memo formally opening a counterintelligence investigation into the Alfa Bank server claims days after Sussmann brought them to Baker.

When questioned by the prosecution, Sands said not knowing where the information came from or whether political supporters produced it could have caused the Bureau to take it more seriously than it should have.

“We haven’t even had a chance to do a sanity check: does it make sense for us to use more time and commitment?” she says.

However, Sands said she had only been in the job for just over three months when she was tasked by a supervisor with opening the investigation into the case, which she was told had “the interest of the seat”. As a result, the investigation was going to be opened regardless of what she thought and briefings on developments were held twice a day, she said.

“Especially as a new agent, that was my most important thing,” she said.

Sands also said the opening and closing records of the investigation indicate the information came from the Justice Department. This appears to be a mistake, possibly misrepresenting the fact that Sussmann was once a DOJ prosecutor.

“I still don’t know 100%, at all,” Sands said.

Sands acknowledged that some cybersecurity agents within the FBI dismissed the alleged evidence early on in the investigation, with one telling him in an instant message, “What a waste of time…but an exercise fun.”

As the trial entered its second week on Monday, a row is also brewing over possible testimony from former New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau. Witnesses heard that the FBI was looking to slow down a story Lichtblau was working on in the fall of 2016 regarding the alleged server links.

Sussmann’s defense wants to call Lichtblau and has waived confidentiality on all discussions Sussmann had with the reporter.

The defense agreed not to pursue further matters, but Durham prosecutors are not a party to that agreement and argue that they should be allowed to question Lichtblau about all of his reporting on the matter, including his interactions with other sources or experts. like a private investigative firm that looked into the subject for Democrats, Fusion GPS.

“We think it’s fair to probe Mr. Lichtblau on the exact substance of this,” Assistant Special Counsel Andrew DeFilippis told Judge Christopher Cooper before the jury was brought into the courtroom on Monday. “These communications are highly probative.”

Lichtblau’s attorneys argued that his testimony should be limited to his interactions with Sussmann.

Cooper expressed doubts Monday about whether prosecutors had done all they could to obtain that information or testimony without getting it from the reporter.

After DeFilippis noted that some of those involved refused to speak to prosecutors, Cooper noted that the government could have forced them to do so by obtaining orders guaranteeing that their testimony would not be used against them.

“You could have vaccinated them,” the judge said.