A former top counterintelligence expert at the FBI, now at the center of a political uproar for exchanging private messages that appeared to mock President Donald Trump, changed a key phrase in former FBI Director James Comey's description of how former secretary of state Hillary Clinton handled classified information, according to US officials familiar with the matter.
Electronic records show Peter Strzok, who led the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server as the No. 2 official in the counterintelligence division, changed Comey's earlier draft language describing Clinton's actions as "grossly negligent" to "extremely careless," the sources said.
The drafting process was a team effort, CNN is told, with a handful of people reviewing the language as edits were made, according to another US official familiar with the matter.
Why does changing the verbiage matter? Back to the report:
The shift from "grossly negligent" to "extremely careless," which may appear pedestrian at first glance, reflected a decision by the FBI that could have had potentially significant legal implications, as the federal law governing the mishandling of classified material establishes criminal penalties for "gross negligence."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, raised questions over why the change was made after receiving documents from the FBI last month, but the identity of who was behind the edit has not been reported until now.
Strzok appears to be at the center of a lot of things:
CNN has also learned that Strzok was the FBI official who signed the document officially opening an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, according to sources familiar with the matter. As the No. 2 official in counterintelligence, Strzok was considered to be one of the bureau's top experts on Russia.
But the news of Strzok's direct role in the statement that ultimately cleared the former Democratic presidential candidate of criminal wrongdoing, now combined with the fact that he was dismissed from special counsel Robert Mueller's team after exchanging private messages with an FBI lawyer that could be seen as favoring Clinton politically, may give ammunition to those seeking ways to discredit Mueller's Russia investigation.
The FBI lawyer in question is Lisa Page. Strzok was also having an affair with her. But there's more:
The FBI agent who was fired from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation team for sending anti-Donald Trump text messages conducted the interviews with two Hillary Clinton aides accused of giving false statements about what they knew of the former secretary of state’s private email server.
Neither of the Clinton associates, Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin, faced legal consequences for their misleading statements, which they made in interviews last year with former FBI section chief Peter Strzok.
And so who was in charge of the interview with Michael Flynn, now in the crosshairs for lying to the FBI? It would be our guy Strzok:
But another Strzok interview subject was not so lucky.
Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, pleaded guilty last week to lying during an interview he gave on Jan. 24 to Strzok and another FBI agent. Circa journalist Sara Carter reported on Monday that Strzok took part in that interview with the retired lieutenant general.
And why does that matter?
At the time, Strzok was the FBI’s top investigator on the fledgling investigation into Russian interference in the presidential campaign. He was appointed to supervise that effort at the end of July 2016, just weeks after the conclusion of the Clinton email probe. CNN reported on Monday that as the FBI’s No. 2 counterintelligence official, Strzok signed the documents that officially opened the collusion inquiry.
The starkly different outcomes from Strzok’s interviews — a felony charge against Flynn and a free pass to Mills and Abedin — are sure to raise questions from Republicans about double-standards in the FBI’s two most prominent political investigations. FBI Director Christopher Wray will likely be pressed on the Strzok scandal on Thursday when he attends an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
Either we have a justice system, or we don't. Either we treat everyone in the same way, or we don't. If we don't, we're past the rule of law and fully into something entirely different. When federal agents are simultaneously political operatives and use their powers to absolve their friends and indict their enemies, we are in a truly dangerous place. Mueller and others associated with the FBI have been stonewalling Congress for months now, precisely because proper oversight would reveal such improprieties and lead to a public outcry against the schemes of those who are supposed to serve the cause of justice. And there's more:
Along with Justice Department attorney David Laufman, Strzok interviewed Clinton herself on July 2, 2016. The pair also interviewed Mills, Abedin and two other Clinton aides, Jake Sullivan and Heather Samuelson.
Summaries of the interviews, known as 302s, were released by the FBI last year.
A review of those documents conducted by The Daily Caller shows that Mills and Abedin told Strzok and Laufman that they were not aware of Clinton’s server until after she left the State Department.
“Mills did not learn Clinton was using a private server until after Clinton’s [Department of State] tenure,” reads notes from Mills’ May 28, 2016 interview. “Mills stated she was not even sure she knew what a server was at the time.”
Abedin also denied knowing about Clinton’s server until leaving the State Department in 2013.
“Abedin did not know that Clinton had a private server until about a year and a half ago when it became public knowledge,” the summary of Strzok’s interview with Abedin states.
But that wasn't true:
But undercutting those denials are email exchanges in which both Mills and Abedin either directly discussed or were involved in discussing Clinton’s server.
“hrc email coming back — is server okay?” Mills asked in a Feb. 27, 2010 email to Abedin and Justin Cooper, a longtime aide to Bill Clinton who helped set up the Clinton server.
“Ur funny. We are on the same server,” Cooper replied.
So is lying to the FBI a crime, or is it not? Here's James Comey on the matter in 2016:
Former FBI Director James Comey defended the Clinton aides’ inconsistent statements in a House Judiciary Committee hearing held on Sept. 28, 2016.
“Having done many investigations myself, there’s always conflicting recollections of facts, some of which are central [to the investigation], some of which are peripheral,” Comey told Jason Chaffetz, a former Utah congressman who served on the committee last year.
Chaffetz was not buying Comey’s dismissive response.
“I think she lied to everybody,” he said of Mills in an interview on Fox News the night of the Comey hearing.
“There’s direct evidence that she actually did know [about the server],” said Chaffetz, who added that Comey’s defense of Mills “makes no sense.”
If Michael Flynn should be brought to justice for lying to the FBI, then Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills should be, too. Either we have a justice system, or we have something else. It's increasingly clear we have something else.