Cute how this works: Kick off the week with some “the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted” bombast from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, by which he rationalizes that his defiance of subpoenas and slow-walking document production to Congress — which is probing investigative irregularities related to the 2016 campaign — is required by DOJ policy and “the rule of law.” Then end the week with the Friday-night bad-news dump: the grudging removal of DOJ and FBI redactions from a House Intelligence Committee report on Russia’s election meddling.
Now that we can see what they wanted to conceal, it is clear, yet again, that the Justice Department and the FBI cannot be trusted to decide what the public gets to learn about their decision-making.
They tell us that their lack of transparency is necessary for the protection of national security, vital intelligence, and investigative operations. But what we find out is that they were concealing their own questionable judgments and conflicting explanations for their actions; their use of foreign-intelligence and criminal-investigative authorities to investigate Michael Flynn, Trump’s top campaign supporter and former national-security adviser; and their explicitly stated belief that Flynn did not lie in the FBI interview for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller has since prosecuted him on false-statements charges.
It is simply ridiculous for President Trump to continue bloviating about this situation on Twitter and in friendly media interviews, and for congressional Republicans to continue pretending that the problem is Justice Department and FBI leadership — as if Trump were not responsible for his own administration’s actions. The president has not only the authority but the duty to ensure that his subordinates honor lawful disclosure requests from Congress.
What happened with these redactions is inexcusable.
A little over a week ago, the House committee chaired by Representative Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) published its lengthy report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The report was actually completed weeks earlier but was withheld while the committee battled to disclose information that the Justice Department and FBI insisted on blacking out. As usual, the DOJ claimed that the declassification and release of the information would damage investigations and national security. No, it wouldn’t, countered Chairmen Nunes and other Republicans who knew what had been redacted.
This has become a depressingly familiar dance. Justice and the Bureau previously insisted that the sky would fall if Congress forced the release of an Intelligence Committee report on government abuse of foreign-intelligence surveillance powers. To the contrary, we learned that the FBI and DOJ had used the unverified Steele dossier to obtain surveillance warrants on at least one person tied to the Trump campaign, in contravention of express guidelines that “only documented and verified information may be used to support FBI applications to the [FISA] court” (see Nunes’s March 1 letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions). In addition, we learned that the FISA court was not told that the dossier was a Clinton campaign opposition-research project, and that its author, Christopher Steele, had been terminated as an informant for lying to the FBI about his contacts with the media.
More recently, the FBI severely restricted access to former FBI director James Comey’s memos of his meetings with President Trump. Finally, three congressional committees protested that there was no legal basis for such restriction. When the memos were finally disclosed, we learned that there was no investigative or national-security reason to have concealed them. They did, however, provide greater insight about such matters as how a briefing of then-president-elect Trump on a salacious sliver of the dossier (but not on its sensational allegations of a traitorous conspiracy with the Kremlin) led to an intelligence-community leak about the briefing and the consequent media publication of the dossier — the backbone of the media-Democratic “collusion with Russia” narrative. (See Mollie Hemingway’s analysis at The Federalist.)
That leads us to last Friday’s disclosure of some — but not nearly all — previously redacted sections of the Intelligence Committee’s Russia Report.
COMEY VS. THE COMMITTEE: DID AGENTS BELIEVE FLYNN LIED?
When the House first issued its report on the Russia investigation, a heavily redacted portion (pp. 53–54) related that Trump’s original national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had pled guilty to a false-statements charge based on misleading statements to FBI agents about his December 2016 conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The report explained that Flynn had been rebuffed by Kislyak when, based on instructions from the Trump transition team, Flynn asked Russia to refrain from voting in favor of a U.N. resolution condemning Israel. Flynn also discussed with the transition team what, if anything, he should communicate to Kislyak about Trump’s position on the sanctions that President Obama had imposed on Russia over its interference in the 2016 election.
None of this was new information. Indeed, the committee noted that it was drawn from public court filings by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in connection with Flynn’s guilty plea. But there was one intriguing disclosure in the redacted report: Flynn pled guilty “even though the [FBI] agents did not detect any deception during Flynn’s interview.” There was no elaboration on this point — no discussion of why Flynn was interrogated by FBI agents in the first place; no insight on deliberations within the FBI and Justice Department about whether Flynn had deceptive intent; no explanation of how he came to be charged months later by Mueller’s prosecutors even though the trained investigators who observed Flynn’s demeanor during the interview did not believe he’d lied.
This news that Flynn’s interrogators had not sensed deception was not altogether new. It had been reported that then–FBI director James Comey had made this revelation in closed-session testimony before the committee on March 2, 2017. (See my column.) Yet, during media interviews to promote his just-released memoir, Comey — who has rebuked the House Intelligence Committee report as an effort to tear down our law-enforcement institutions — repeatedly expressed bafflement that anyone could possibly have construed his testimony to imply that the agents believed Flynn had not lied. Byron York recounts the interviews at the Washington Examiner. In one, Comey told ABC host and Clinton pal George Stephanopoulos:
I don’t know where that’s coming from. . . . That — unless I’m — I said something that people misunderstood, I don’t remember even intending to say that. So, my recollection is I never said that to anybody.
Well, shortly after the redactions were lifted late on Friday, The Federalist’s Sean Davis got busy on Twitter, posting side-by-side comparisons of the original heavily redacted pages and the new, more transparent version. The disclosures are stunning. I know this will amaze you, but it turns out the redactions had absolutely nothing to do with concerns about the need to protect national security or pending investigations. Instead, the now-unredacted passages:
Wouldn’t it be nice to be such a dim-witted moron that none of these clear revelations of government corruption and seditious activity causes you any concern?