WATCH | Intelligence sources say that the FBI investigated a computer tied to Donald Trump's business but there's no evidence to date that would warrant criminal charges against any of the president’s associates.
The months-long FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign briefly investigated a computer server tied to Donald Trump's businesses near the end of the election but has not gathered evidence of election tampering to date that would warrant criminal charges against any of the president’s associates, Circa has learned.
U.S. officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information, said there is widespread frustration among intelligence professionals who have watched in horror as a normally secretive process has been distorted by media leaks and politicians uneducated about how counterintelligence operations actually work.
"I've never seen a case so misrepresented and leaks so damaging to a process that was meant to be conducted in secret."
“We have people spouting off who don’t know the difference between FISA surveillance and a wiretap or a counterintelligence probe versus a special prosecutor, and it has hurts our ability to get to the truth and has wrongly created the impression that intelligence officials have a political agenda,” said one source directly familiar with the drama.
It's about Russia more than Trump
Many of the leaks have surfaced since former President Barack Obama in his waning days in office had his intelligence leadership brief a wider than normal audience about the sensitive Russia surveillance. Those leaks have created a false narrative that the FBI has been predominantly focused on Trump ties to Russia, officials said.
In fact, any FBI activity involving the president’s associates or advisers was mostly ancillary to a wider counterintelligence probe into Russian efforts to influence the election or curry favor with U.S. figures, the sources said.
“The (Trump-Russia) narrative in the media hasn’t been our primary focus and mostly involves pieces of information that came in incidentally. We check them out and we move on,” one official said, adding most of the work has involved old-fashioned investigative tactics and not surveillance.
Added another official: “I’ve never seen a case so misrepresented and leaks so damaging to a process that was meant to be conducted in secret so that foreign powers don’t know what we know and people’s reputations aren’t tarnished unfairly.”
Several sources with direct knowledge say the FBI’s interest in investigating possible Moscow efforts to influence the 2016 election was born out of its long expertise on Russian players gathered back from the 2001 Robert Hansen espionage affair and the 2010 Anna Chapman spy ring scandal.
Russian activity raised suspicions
Other intelligence agencies also were gathering similar evidence highlighting Russian activity like computer hacking and propaganda.
The bureau, along with other intelligence agencies, had early signs of political-motivated hacking by Russia and uncorroborated information from among others a former British intelligence officer about possible contacts between Russian intelligence and people close to Trump.
“There were indicators of Russian activity and uncorroborated allegations of Trump associates having contact with key figures and we needed to know if they were connected or not,” one source described. “We’d be remiss if we did not answer that question for the national security community.”
Probe starts into Russian connections with US citizens
Officials decided the best course of action was to pursue a classic counterintelligence investigation focused on what the Russians were actually doing and whether anyone in the United States, including on the Trump team, might be encouraging or facilitating those actions or financially benefitting from them.
One of the documents that agents tried to corroborate became known as the “Trump dossier,” the work of a trusted ex-British intelligence agent hired by political operatives to find damaging evidence on Trump in Russia. Some of the information in the dossier was explicit and salacious and uncorroborated -- like an alleged interlude between Trump and a prostitute in Moscow a few years back and an alleged Russian bribe that could have spelled billions of dollars for Trump’s companies.
Information could not be corroborated
Agents were able to corroborate some details in the dossier, mostly public source intelligence about meetings and decisions involving Russian figures. But much of the information about Trump and associates could not be corroborated. Some was disproven and other facts took on new connotations when additional investigation was concluded.
FISA used in probe
For instance, the FBI and Justice Department received a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant in October to help further the Russia investigation. Officials stressed there were no intercepts of Trump’s phone or emails.
Separately, they used traditional investigative techniques to review a computer server tied to the the soon-to-be-president's businesses in Trump Towers in New York but located elsewhere.
Agents were examining allegations of computer activity tied to Russia.. Very quickly, they concluded the computer activity in question involved no nefarious contacts, bank transactions or encrypted communications with the Russians, and likely involved routine computer signals.
The towers are home to Trump’s business, personal residence and then-campaign headquarters.
The Flynn connection
The officials also strongly disputed that the FBI’s intercepts of conversations in December between soon-to-to-be U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were part of a continuing Trump-focused national security investigation. In fact, they were part of a long-established special intelligence program in which the FBI is routinely permitted to review intercepts of Russian embassy officials.
Americans are often incidentally intercepted, and the FBI has authority to review those conversations without a specific warrant when they involve national security matters. Flynn fell into that category in part because he had a security clearance, the sources said.
The sources said Flynn exchanged a handful of calls or text messages to the Russian ambassador in December, including holiday wishes and condolences for recent Russian tragedies.
"We'd be remiss if we did not answer that question for the national security community."
Some involved more substantive policy issues, something the FBI flagged for the larger intelligence community because Obama was still in power and Trump was not yet in power.
What Flynn and Kislyak talked about
For instance, after the Russian ambassador sent a text message seeking a phone call, Flynn and Kislyak talked about sanctions imposed by Obama on Russia on Dec. 29, but the message the American official gave was mostly that a new sheriff was about to take over the White House and Russians shouldn’t react to the new sanctions in a way that would foreclose better dialog in the future under a Trump administration, sources said.
Currently, no evidence against Flynn
There was also a discussion of a possible conference about Kazakhstan the next month, they added. To date, the FBI has not found anything that rises to criminal activity in the Flynn conversations, though the ultimate decision will reside with prosecutors in the Justice Department, the sources said.
Russia was hacking to try and influence the election
The information gathered during 2016 by the FBI, however, did further a robust portrait already being built by numerous intelligence agencies, like the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and Directorate of National Intelligence, that Russia and its related actors had taken actions like hacking to influence the U.S. election with the apparent aim of hurting Hillary Clinton’s election chances or helping Trump.
There also was evidence of Russian-friendly figures trying to curry favor with those close to Trump, something that happens at all levels when a new president is poised to take office.
But there was no concrete evidence of bribes, illicit money or other criminal activity related to the Russian effort to influence elections. So the FBI proceeded to process security clearances for key Trump players about to take jobs in the new administration, the sources said.
Obama and Trump briefed
At Obama’s request, a highly classified briefing was prepared for the outgoing and incoming presidents, which was given to both men over the December holiday break. Obama, who had received updates through 2016 on the issue, used his detailed briefing as the final justification for the new sanctions on Moscow announced on Dec. 29, which included expelling three dozen Russians from America.
Trump used his briefing to dispel what he saw was a myriad of “fake news” reports suggesting his team was complicit with Russians in trying to hijack the election.
The FBI contributions to the briefing included mention of the uncorroborated Russian dossier created by the British intelligence agent.
The FBI chose to include the information to educate the new president in particular to the tactics of Russian intelligence agencies, including the planting of false stories in documents like the dossier and the use of money and sex to compromise Western leaders or to leave them open to bribery, sources said.
Until that point, the FBI surveillance process was mostly free of political interference and followed the normal rigors of a counter-intelligence investigation closely monitored by a supervisory court of federal judges and other intelligence apparatus.
The leaks begin
But the start of the New Year brought with it an unexpected politicizing of the intelligence gathered in secret. Congress was briefed in early January, as were many other government officials.
Separately, the Obama administration amended a long-standing executive order allowing information intercepted through FISA warrants or by the National Security Agency to be shared to a wider audience in 16 government agencies as Obama was leaving office.
Intelligence normally reserved for just a handful of intelligence leaders was spread through briefings to scores of workers, and soon leaks began appearing in news media, often in stories lacking the context of how national security investigations are actually conducted. The leak of the Flynn conversations with the Russian ambassador alarmed career FBI officials, who knew it had been gathered using the most sensitive of surveillance powers.
Mortified over leaks
Some U.S intelligence officials were also mortified that the leak tipped off the Russian ambassador to which of his phones might be monitored by U.S. intelligence, harming future surveillance efforts.
There was also concerns that Flynn’s contentious relationship with other elements of the intelligence community back when he served as Defense Intelligence Agency chief played a role in the leaking of classified intercepts.
Reaction to Trump's wiretap allegations
Trump’s own claim this week that the FBI wiretapped his phone further irritated senior officials. Director James Comey even took the step of asking Justice to knock down the claim. While the computer server was investigted, Trump’s phones and emails were never wiretapped, officials said.
Comey’s request was designed to combat any insinuation that the FBI was used by the Obama administration as a political-enemy intelligence gathering agency in the midst of the election.
But inside the intelligence community it also conveyed another powerful message: Comey has always insisted the bureau won’t comment on ongoing probes. So his willingness to push out a comment was a sign the FBI doesn’t see a criminal case emerging so far.