FBI Listened to Papadopoulos’s Call on Elusive Grounds, Documents Indicate

FBI Listened to Papadopoulos’s Call on Elusive Grounds, Documents Indicate
George Papadopoulos visits "The Story With Martha MacCallum" at Fox News Studios in New York City on March 26, 2019. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Petr Svab
News Analysis

The FBI listened to at least one phone call of former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, according to a recently released text message of Peter Strzok, former head of FBI counterintelligence operations.

The text raises the question of what authority the FBI had to conduct such surveillance, particularly because, based on the text, the call with the Fox News executive took place on Jan. 11, 2017, two weeks before Papadopoulos’s voluntary FBI interview during which he later admitted he lied. Lying was the only crime he was charged with in the sprawling investigation into supposed collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which failed to substantiate that any such collusion occurred.

The FBI declined to comment.

Papadopoulos confirmed that the call with Fox’s vice president took place, but couldn’t pinpoint the date.

“I don’t know if the call was then,” he told The Epoch Times via Twitter direct message. “I met and talked to the VP at least 5 times in person and on the phone.”

The government isn’t allowed to tap Americans’ calls unless a judge agrees there’s a probable cause that a crime has occurred or is about to occur, as dictated by the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent. The government has significantly eroded those protections through laws that allow surveillance for national security reasons, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

But even under FISA, Americans’ calls can be spied on only after a secret FISA court grants a special warrant based on a probable cause that the subject is an agent of a foreign power. The review of the Russia investigation by Justice Department’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz uncovered such spying warrants on only one subject—former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The FBI acknowledged that two of the four warrants were invalid and resulted in illegal surveillance. Page is now suing the government and the responsible current and former officials for $75 million in damages (pdf).

The FBI team running the Russia probe, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” apparently intended to get a FISA warrant on Papadopoulos as well.

“CH team will pursue [redacted] new FISA surveillance on CROSSFIRE TYPHOON [redacted]. CH Team will analyze the results of FISA surveillance on an ongoing basis,” stated an FBI document outlining the team’s plans for the investigation around November 2016 (pdf). Crossfire Typhoon was the code name the FBI gave Papadopoulos.

But another document outlining a briefing on the probe to the FBI director on May 1 states that “[redacted] in not pursuing FISA, and is awaiting returns on [redacted].”

Prosecutors acknowledged that the government had obtained search warrants and subpoenas for Papadopoulos’s “emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information,” according to the government’s sentencing memorandum (pdf).

But this isn’t how phone wiretaps are regularly obtained, according to Marc Ruskin, an FBI veteran and Epoch Times contributor.

The FBI is supposed to ask a judge for a phone intercept order under Title III of The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which needs to clear the probable cause standard, he told The Epoch Times. The order needs to be renewed every 30 days, and agents are only supposed to record conversations that pertain to the alleged criminal activity.

Some speculated that the FBI used a national security letter to obtain Papadopoulos’s calls, but such letters aren’t allowed to be used to obtain content of communications, only metadata, such when the call took place and which number was called.

Papadopoulos believes the FBI did obtain a FISA warrant to spy on him, not through the Russia probe, but via his business engagements with Israel.

“They were spying on the Israelis and my business dealings,” he said. “That’s why the heat was turned up immediately upon me joining the Trump campaign.”

The final report by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who took over the Russia probe in May 2017 as a special counsel, mentioned that the FBI probed whether Papadopoulos acted as an unregistered agent of Israel. It failed to substantiate the charge.

“While the investigation revealed significant ties between Papadopoulos and Israel (and search warrants were obtained in part on that basis), the Office ultimately determined that the evidence was not sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction under FARA or Section 951,” the report stated (pdf).

FARA refers to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires people to register with the Department of Justice (DOJ) if they do political or lobbying work in the United States for a foreign entity as long as the work principally benefits a foreign government. Section 951 requires registration of any “agent of a foreign government.”

The key text message Strzok received on Jan. 12, 2017, indeed references FARA.

“I know you’re not point on this anymore, but typhoon [Papadopoulos] got a call from the VP at Fox News yesterday, who advised that the government was conducting ‘checks’ on him a few months back,” an unidentified individual said in the text.

“I haven’t listed to the exact audio, but I’m guess[ing] that’s the FARA checks that we did with DOJ on our 4 main guys; especially given the article that you pushed yesterday.”

The four “main guys” were most likely Papadopoulos, Page, former head of Trump’s campaign Paul Manafort, and former Trump adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. The FBI opened separate investigations on them under the Crossfire Hurricane umbrella. All four were officially marked as probing for FARA violations and, as the text indicates, the FBI cooperated with the DOJ to check for potential FARA violations. At the same time, the investigation was also led as a counterintelligence one, meaning the goal was to probe national security threats rather than crimes.

It appears the only time Papadopoulos gave the FBI some indication that he may have violated FARA by acting as an unregistered Israeli agent came in his talk with FBI informant Stefan Halper in September 2016. Papadopoulos boasted about his assistance to the Israeli government, saying he’s “done some sensitive work for that government,” and the Israelis had “allowed [him] quite a high level of access.”

“No one else did my, the work that I basically did. Some, some folks always joke they say you should go into the CIA after this if he [Trump] ends up losing,” he said, according to an FBI transcript of the conversation (pdf).

But the FBI’s obtaining a wiretap order on such a justification would raise further questions.

“It’s doubtful that this would consist of sufficient probable cause for violation of FARA, unless there was other evidence to corroborate the statement of the informant,” Ruskin said.

“‘Doing some sensitive work for the government’ is hardly sufficient to articulate that crime was committed, and that the crime was a violation of the FARA.”

FARA violations are almost never prosecuted because the law require “willfulness,” meaning the subject needs to be aware that he was supposed to register. Usually, the DOJ FARA Unit just sends violators letters asking them to register.

Moreover, publicly available information indicates it was Papadopoulos making overtures to Israel, pushing his policy proposals for an Israel-Cyprus-Greece alliance. His initiative, initially funded by the Texas-based Noble Energy, was to convince the countries to move natural gas from the Israeli Leviathan field to Europe through Greece instead of Turkey, he said in his book, “Deep State Target.” Noble, recently acquired by Chevron, discovered the gas field in 2010 and had a license from Israel to drill it.

Papadopoulos’s proposal indeed benefited Israel, which was likely to prefer a pipeline to Greece, as it had reservations about Ankara’s support of the anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood. Promoting the proposal, Papadopoulos met with a number of Israeli officials. He was also under the impression that the Obama administration didn’t like the plan. But none of this appears to make him a foreign agent.

“I never worked for any foreign government, never took money from a foreign government. It seems the Obama administration did not appreciate my views, which eventually became policy on the ground in the region,” he said.