The FBI attorney who altered an email as part of the process to obtain a secret court warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser admitted to one count of making a false statement on Aug. 19 before a federal judge in Washington.
Former FBI assistant general counsel Kevin Clinesmith made the plea as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed to propose a sentencing range of zero to six months. Judge James Boasberg set the sentencing hearing for Dec. 10.
At the opening of the hearing, Boasberg noted that he's the head judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which signed off on the warrant application cited in the charge against Clinesmith. The judge said he didn't see any issues with the overlap, but offered the parties to call for his recusal because the FISC could be viewed as a victim. The government and Clinesmith declined the offer.
Clinesmith's guilty plea is the first secured as part of an investigation by special attorney John Durham, who is investigating whether the FBI's probe of the Trump campaign was conducted lawfully and free of improper motive. President Donald Trump has long claimed that the Obama administration weaponized government surveillance against his campaign.
As part of the plea agreement, Durham's team agreed not to prosecute Clinesmith for any of the conduct described in the 10-page statement of offense, which wasn't public at the time of the hearing. The prosecutors also agreed not to modify the conditions of Clinesmith's release.
Although the government proposed a sentencing range of up to six months, Boasberg may still sentence Clinesmith above the proposed range, depending on the review of the case.
Before accepting the plea, Boasberg asked if Clinesmith altered the email in question knowing that the statement he added was not true. Clinesmith said that he thought at the time that the statement was true, but admitted to forging the email.
"At the time, I believed that the information I was providing in the email was accurate, but I am agreeing that the information I entered into the email was not originally there and that I have inserted that information," Clinesmith said.
Clinesmith altered the email on June 19, 2017, while working as the primary FBI attorney assigned to the "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation, which Mueller had inherited a month earlier.
According to the court documents, Clinesmith inserted the words “and not a source” into an email from a CIA liaison that described the relationship between Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and the CIA. As the primary FBI attorney on the case, Clinesmith was asked to find out if Page was a source for the agency before the FBI applied for the fourth and final warrant to continue surveilling Page.
As a result, an FBI special agent relied on the altered email to submit a warrant application to the FISC, which described Page as a Russian asset without disclosing that he was an approved operational contact for the CIA who reported on his interactions with Russian intelligence officers.
The Department of Justice inspector general last year flagged Clinesmith’s admitted forgery as one of the most egregious faults among the 17 serious errors and omissions contained in the applications the FBI used to surveil Page.
The CIA had provided certain members of the FBI's team working the Crossfire Hurricane case—the codename for the probe of the Trump campaign—with a copy of the memo about Page in August 2016, two months before the FBI applied for the first Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on Page. None of the subsequent FISA applications mentioned Page's history or work with the CIA.
Clinesmith was assigned as the primary FBI attorney providing legal support to the Crossfire Hurricane team in early 2017 and was removed in February 2018.
While the inspector general’s reports and other evidence in the public realm have already substantially clouded the credibility of the Mueller probe, Clinesmith's guilty plea is the first admission of criminal conduct carried out as part of the special counsel investigation, which roiled the nation for 22 months but found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The plea also raises serious questions about the culture within the broader special counsel operation, where Clinesmith played a key role for roughly a year before being removed upon the discovery of his blatantly anti-Trump text messages.
Clinesmith wasn’t the only FBI official to have been removed from Mueller’s team over biased text messages. FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page ridiculed Trump, spoke of stopping him from winning the election, and mentioned an “insurance policy” in the “unlikely” event he won. The pair, who at the time was involved in an extramarital affair, broached the subject of impeachment around the time Mueller was assigned to lead the inquiry. Mueller removed Strzok upon learning of the messages. Page had left on her own prior to the discovery.
The inspector general didn’t find evidence that bias motivated any of the investigative actions, but told Congress that he was baffled by the sheer number of serious errors committed by three handpicked teams working on the FBI’s most sensitive case.
The government, represented by U.S. attorneys Anthony Scarpelli and Neeraj Patel, requested that Clinesmith turn in his passport, refrain from international travel, and limit his domestic trips to a handful of states. The judge concurred with the request.