One of the special FBI agents who interviewed President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, at the White House in January 2017, played a much bigger role in the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign—known as Crossfire Hurricane—than previously assumed, a report by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz reveals.
The agent was first introduced into the public realm in a May 11, 2018, letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who inquired about the FBI’s interview with Flynn.
Grassley specifically asked that the Department of Justice (DOJ) “make Special Agent Joe Pientka available for a transcribed interview with Committee staff no later than one week following the production of the requested documents.”
In a report released in December by Horowitz on the FBI’s FISA abuse during its investigation of the Trump campaign, the role of an unidentified FBI supervisory special agent (SSA)—described in Horowitz’s report as “SSA 1”—was featured prominently throughout. The description of events and dates match the public information on Pientka’s actions, and on Dec. 13, Pientka was confirmed by Fox News as being “SSA 1.”
The inspector general report noted that all the participating members of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team were selected by Strzok, Pientka, and “the Intel Section chief,” who is almost certainly intelligence analyst Jonathan Moffa, who, according to July 16, 2018, testimony from Lisa Page, worked on both the Clinton and Trump investigations with Strzok.
On page xviii of the inspector general report, it was disclosed that Pientka was running the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign as its supervisor. Pientka also was the agent who provided defensive briefings to the Trump and Clinton campaigns in August 2016.
“We learned during the course of our review that in August 2016, the supervisor of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, SSA 1 [Pientka], participated on behalf of the FBI in a strategic intelligence briefing given by Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to candidate Trump and his national security advisors, including Michael Flynn, and in a separate strategic intelligence briefing given to candidate Clinton and her national security advisors,” the report states.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), during congressional testimony given by Horowitz, noted that the FBI used this meeting as an opportunity to effectively spy on the Trump campaign and gather further information—a characterization that Horowitz agreed with. Horowitz also said in his testimony he was concerned about this practice:
Sen. Graham: “So when we get defensively briefed tomorrow, would it be okay for FBI agents to open up 302s on what we said?”
Mr. Horowitz: “We have very significant concerns about that.”
Horowitz noted in his report that Pientka was specifically selected to “provide the FBI briefings, in part, because Flynn, who was a subject in the ongoing Crossfire Hurricane investigation, would be attending the Trump campaign briefing.”
Just prior to this defensive briefing, on Aug. 1, 2016, Strzok and Pientka “traveled to the European city to interview the FFG [Friendly Foreign Government] officials who met with Papadopoulos in May 2016.” The IG report noted that “during the interview they learned that Papadopoulos did not say that he had direct contact with the Russians.”
It also appears that Pientka was in charge of selecting the Confidential Human Sources (CHS) that were used against George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Flynn:
“In determining how to use CHSs in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, SSA 1 and the case agents told the OIG that they focused their CHS operations on the predicating information and the four named subjects,” the inspector general report states.
The report describes “a consensually recorded meeting in August 2016 between Carter Page and an FBI CHS.” The IG noted that Pientka and “Case Agent 1 told the OIG that this meeting was important for the investigation.” But it appears that important information from this meeting was left out of the Page FISA application.
In footnote 197, the IG noted that “Page’s comment about his lack of a relationship with Manafort was relevant to one of the allegations in the Steele reporting that was relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, but information about the August 2016 CHS meeting was not shared with the OI attorneys handling the FISA applications until June 2017.”
It also appears that Pientka had some concerns and advanced warnings regarding the media contacts by Christopher Steele—who produced a dossier on Trump for the Clinton campaign that was critical in the FBI obtaining a FISA warrant—specifically regarding the Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff:
“SSA 1’s notes from a meeting on September 30 contain the following notation: ‘control issues—reports acknowledged in Yahoo News.’ We asked SSA 1 whether he was concerned at the time that there were control issues with Steele. He stated that he was concerned but that he was not sure that Steele was responsible for providing information to Yahoo News. In addition, he said he was focused on Steele’s discussions with the State Department about his work with the FBI,” the report states.
“SSA 1 stated that an important objective of the planned meeting with Steele in early October was to obtain ‘exclusivity’ in Steele’s reporting relationship, meaning that Steele would provide his intelligence related to the election exclusively to the FBI.”
There were further concerns regarding Steele’s credibility that were relayed to Pientka relatively early on that were never transmitted to the FISA court. State Department official Kathleen Kavalec met with Steele in October 2016 and was provided with some information from Steele that she knew to be inaccurate. According to the IG report, this information was relayed directly to Pientka:
“The FBI liaison informed SSA 1 and Case Agent 1 via email on November 18 that Kavalec had met with Steele, she had taken notes of their meeting, the liaison could obtain information from Kavalec about the meeting, and, according to Kavalec, the information from Steele’s reporting about a Russian consulate being located in Miami was inaccurate.”
Additionally, the Department of Justice’s Office of Intelligence (OI) questioned the Crossfire Hurricane team on Oct. 12, 2016—prior to the first FISA application on Trump campaign aide Page—asking the FBI team to “articulate why it deems [Steele’s] reporting to be credible notwithstanding [Steele] did the investigation based on [a] private citizen’s motivation to help [Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party].”
Pientka appeared to personally vouch for Steele to the OI, responding “that: (1) the FBI has had an established relationship with the source since 2013; (2) the source was generating reporting well before the opening of Crossfire Hurricane and the leaks concerning the DNC emails, and therefore this was not a situation where a source was attempting to steer an ongoing investigation; and (3) Steele was not a U.S. citizen and therefore had no vested interest in the outcome of the election.”
The IG report also noted that FBI emails made clear that Pientka was fully aware by Jan. 11, 2017, that the investigative firm hired by the DNC was the same firm that had hired Steele to “conduct his election-related research,” and noted, “We found no evidence that this information was shared with OI.”
Horowitz also noted that by “February and March 2017, it was broadly known among FBI officials working on and supervising the investigation, and shared with senior NSD and ODAG officials, that Simpson (who hired Steele) was himself hired first by a candidate during the Republican primaries and then later by someone related to the Democratic Party.”
As Horowitz noted in his report, “Nevertheless, the footnote in Renewal Application Nos. 1, 2, and 3, was not revised to reflect this additional information.”
Pientka’s Role in Reviewing the Facts in FISA Application
It appears that Pientka also had direct involvement in the review of the Woods File for the Page FISA application and subsequent renewals. The inspector general report notes that “SSA 1, was responsible for confirming that the Woods File was complete and for double-checking the factual accuracy review to confirm that the file contained appropriate documentation for each of the factual assertions in the FISA application.”
According to the report, Pientka “said he found that each factual assertion was supported by documentation in the Woods File, and he had no concerns with how the Woods Procedures were completed.”
Pientka also told the inspector general, however, that he didn’t personally review the entire document:
“SSA 1 told us that he relied on Case Agent 1 to highlight each relevant fact in the supporting document in the Woods File, and that once he verified that each highlighted fact corresponded to a factual assertion in the application, he would move on to the next fact, without necessarily reviewing the entire document.”
The inspector general report, however, identified “at least 17 significant errors or omissions in the Page FISA applications, and many additional errors in the Woods Procedures. These errors and omissions resulted from case agents providing wrong or incomplete information to the OI (Office of Intelligence) and failing to flag important issues for discussion.”
On the original Page FISA application, Horowitz noted seven specific errors:
- The FBI omitted information from the FISA application that detailed work that Page had previously done for another U.S. government agency.
- The FBI mischaracterized former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s prior work for the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the FISA application.
- The FBI didn’t inform the FISA Court of certain material concerns regarding a key source that Steele used for his dossier: that Person 1 was a “boaster,” an “egoist,” and “may engage in some embellishment.”
- The FBI used a Sept. 23, 2016, article by Yahoo News reporter Michael Isikoff as corroboration of Steele’s reporting. The FBI failed to inform the FISA Court that Steele was actually the source for Isikoff’s article.
- The FBI failed to provide the FISA Court with a statement by Trump campaign adviser Papadopoulos to a confidential human source (CHS) in September 2016—presumably FBI informant Stefan Halper—in which Papadopoulos denied that anyone from the Trump campaign was collaborating with Russia.
- The FBI also omitted a statement from Page denying that he ever met former Trump campaign manager Manafort. This denial was important as Steele claimed that Page was acting as an intermediary to Russia on behalf of Manafort.
- Finally, the FBI “cherry-picked” statements made by Page to an FBI confidential human source that served to support obtaining a FISA on Page, while, at the same time, excluding statements from Page that weren’t supportive of such an action.
All of these errors, along with 10 more identified by the IG report with regard to the three renewals of the FISA on Page, appear to have had at least some direct overlap with Pientka’s work and his oversight, or lack thereof, of the underlying Woods Documents, which were supposed to back up the assertions made in any FISA application and renewals.
Pientka’s Contact With Bruce Ohr
Bruce Ohr, who was the highest-ranking career official in the DOJ in 2016, played a crucial role in passing on unfounded allegations against Trump from Steele and Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson to the FBI—specifically to Pientka—who was assigned as Ohr’s initial FBI “handler.” Pientka summarized their conversations in FBI FD-302 forms—which were obtained by Judicial Watch and made public in August 2019.
On Nov. 21, 2016, Ohr was introduced to Pientka, the first of his four FBI handlers, during a meeting with FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page—both key players in the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign. The next day, on Nov. 22, 2016, Ohr met alone with Pientka and the sequence of 302’s stemming from these ongoing interviews began.
In that Nov. 22 interview, Ohr relayed a large amount of vital information to Pientka—most of which was never relayed by the FBI to the FISA Court. Notably, the FBI had already terminated Steele as a source at the start of November 2016 because of his communications with the media.
Specifically, Ohr told Pientka that Simpson had been hired by “a lawyer who does opposition research.” Simpson’s firm, Fusion GPS, had been hired by law firm Perkins Coie on behalf of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee in April 2016.
According to the inspector general report, this information was already known to Pientka on Aug. 2, 2016:
“An FBI agent from another FBI field office sent an email to his supervisor stating that he had been contacted by a former CHS who ‘was contacted recently by a colleague who runs an investigative firm. The firm had been hired by two entities (the Democratic National Committee as well as another individual … not name[d]) to explore Donald J. Trump’s longstanding ties to Russian entities.’ On or about August 2, 2016, this information was shared by a CD supervisor with the Section Chief of CD’s Counterintelligence Analysis Section I (Intel Section Chief), who provided it that day to members of the Crossfire Hurricane team (then Section Chief Peter Strzok, SSA 1, and the Supervisory Intel Analyst).”
Ohr, according to the report, also told Pientka of Steele’s bias against Trump during his first interview in November 2016, noting that Steele was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being the U.S. President.” This strong bias on Steele’s part wasn’t relayed to the FISA court.
Ohr told Pientka that he knew “[redacted] reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia were going to the Clinton Campaign, Jon Winer at the U.S. State Department and the FBI.” Ohr also told Pientka that “Simpson and others were talking to Victoria Nuland at the U.S. State Department,” and that “Simpson was passing [redacted] information to many individuals or entities and at times [redacted] would attend meetings with Simpson.”
Ohr also told Pientka about a meeting between Steele and Yahoo News reporter Isikoff, which resulted in a Sept. 23, 2016, article on Page, “U.S. Intel Officials Probe Ties Between Trump Adviser and Kremlin.”
“Simpson and [redacted] could have met with Yahoo or Michael Isikoff jointly, but OHR does not know if they did. OHR provided copies of notes he took after the meeting with [redacted] which are enclosed as attachments,” according to the FBI’s 302 documents.
The redacted name is almost without doubt a reference to Steele.
Isikoff’s article would be used by the FBI in the Page FISA application. The FBI told the FISA court in its application that the FBI “does not believe that Source #1,” later identified as Steele, “directly provided this information to the identified news organization that published the September 23rd News Article.”
Notably, the FBI would cite Isikoff’s article, along with the inaccurate disclaimer, in each of the three subsequent FISA renewals, despite knowing since at least Nov. 22, 2016, via Pientka’s communications with Ohr, that Steele had been the source for Isikoff’s piece.
Around two weeks later, during a Dec. 5, 2016, FBI interview, Ohr told Pientka that his wife, Nellie Ohr, had worked for Fusion GPS from October 2015 to September 2016 and during a Dec. 20 interview, he provided the FBI with a thumb drive containing “the totality of the work Nellie Ohr conducted for Simpson.” Additionally, Bruce Ohr provided the FBI with a dossier on former Trump campaign chairman Manafort titled, “Manafort Chronology” that had been compiled by Nellie Ohr.
Five days later, during a meeting on Dec. 10, 2016, Ohr met with Simpson, who gave him a memory stick that Ohr believed contained the Steele dossier. Ohr then passed the memory stick to Pientka two days later.
Ohr repeatedly stated in congressional testimony that he never vetted any of the information provided by either Steele or Simpson. He simply turned it over or relayed it to the FBI—usually to Pientka. What Ohr didn’t know was that Pientka was transmitting all the information directly to FBI Agent Strzok.
Rep. Mark Meadows: “Was Joe Pientka your go-between in December when you got additional information from either Christopher Steele or Glenn Simpson in getting it to the FBI?”
Bruce Ohr: “Joe Pientka, I believe, was my contact at that time, yeah.”
Rep. Meadows: “You have a meeting, You get information. You immediately go to Joe Pientka, who immediately goes to Peter Strzok. Are you aware of that?”
Mr. Ohr: “No.”
Horowitz, in his testimony before Congress, seemed genuinely surprised at Ohr’s role and the FBI’s ongoing use of him as a conduit to Steele. This was made apparent during questioning that took place during Horowitz’s Dec. 11, 2019, testimony with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.):
Mr. Horowitz: “So at the time of these events he [Ohr] was an associate deputy attorney general and the head of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force working out of the Deputy Attorney General’s office [Sally Yates].”
Sen. Sasse: “The Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force? And that’s connected to election interference by the Russians how?”
Mr. Horowitz: “It is not.”
Sen. Sasse: “What the hell’s he doing here?”
Mr. Horowitz: “That was precisely the concern which we lay out here. He had no role in any of the election interference matters.”
The FBI’s Flynn Interview
On Jan. 24, 2017, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then-national security adviser to President Donald Trump, was interviewed by both Strzok and Pientka about two conversations that Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December 2016.
According to court documents from the Flynn case, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe and other FBI officials “decided the agents would not warn Flynn that it was a crime to lie during an FBI interview because they wanted Flynn to be relaxed.” It was during this interview that Flynn reportedly lied to the FBI.
Details about Flynn’s phone conversation with Kislyak were leaked to the media on Jan. 12, 2017. Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI regarding the conversations with Kislyak. It remains unknown to this day who leaked Flynn’s classified call—a felony violation.
Notably, The Washington Post reported on Jan. 23, 2017, that the FBI found no evidence of wrongdoing in Flynn’s actual call with the Russian ambassador.
While the inspector general report doesn’t discuss the case of Flynn in great detail, it details Pientka’s involvement with the defensive briefings made to the Trump campaign in August 2016. Horowitz noted in his report that “we found that SSA 1 [Pientka] was selected to provide the FBI briefings, in part, because Flynn, who was a subject in the ongoing Crossfire Hurricane investigation, would be attending the Trump campaign briefing.”
When asked about this, Pientka told the IG that “one of the reasons for his selection was that ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence, at the time headed by DNI James Clapper] had informed the FBI that one of the two Trump campaign advisors attending the August 17 briefing would be Flynn. He further stated that the briefing provided him ‘the opportunity to gain assessment and possibly have some level of familiarity with [Flynn]. So, should we get to the point where we need to do a subject interview … I would have that to fall back on.'”
When the IG asked Pientka to elaborate on the use of the term “assessment,” Pientka told the IG:
“[Flynn’s] overall mannerisms. That overall mannerisms and then also if there was anything specific to Russia, or anything specific to our investigation that was mentioned by him, or quite frankly we had an … investigation, right. And any of the other two individuals in the room, if they, any kind of admission, or overhear, whatever it was, I was there to record that.”
According to the IG report, Pientka was “the only FBI representative at the ODNI briefing on August 17, 2016, which was attended by Trump, Flynn, and another Trump campaign advisor.”
According to the IG’s report, Pientka drafted an Electronic Communication documenting his participation in the defensive briefing to the Trump campaign and added it to the Crossfire Hurricane investigative file.
“SSA 1 told us that he documented those instances where he was engaged by the attendees, as well as anything related to the FBI or pertinent to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, such as comments about the Russian Federation. SSA 1 said that he also documented information that may not have been relevant at the time he recorded it, but might prove relevant in the future,” the inspector general report states.
Interestingly, Pientka told Horowitz that “he did not memorialize in writing the briefing he participated in of candidate Clinton and her national security advisors because the attendees did not include a subject of an FBI investigation, and because there was nothing from the other briefings that was of investigative value to the Crossfire Hurricane team.”