Peter Strzok, then an agent at the FBI, speaks during a joint House Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform Committees hearing in Washington, D.C. on July 12, 2018.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Peter Strzok omits a few important things from his new memoir, Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump.
Strzok, one of the most notorious FBI officials in history, wants to rehabilitate himself. But he leaves out parts of the story about which most readers probably are most curious — including his relationship with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
Strzok and Page carried on an extramarital affair even as they worked at the core of some of the FBI’s biggest cases.
As they did, they exchanged thousands of messages via their FBI-provided mobile phones, some of which “expressed political opinions about candidates and issues involved in the 2016 presidential election, including statements of hostility” toward Donald Trump “and statements of support for” for Hillary Clinton, as the Justice Department’s inspector general wrote.
Flip to page 400 of your copy of the IG report for this example, in which Strzok wrote to Page: “Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart. I could SMELL the Trump support….”
Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump, by Peter Strzok
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
And so on. Investigators recovered 9,311 messages from Strzok’s phone and 10,760 from Page’s.
This material provided critics of the FBI and the Russia inquiry with sensational ammunition in their years-long campaign to counterattack by tearing down federal law enforcement.
Strzok acknowledges transgressions in the book but says he wants to spare his family and focus his story on the job. Moreover, he argues, FBI employees are allowed to have opinions and even use their mobile devices for personal communications.
“Having said that, just because something might be allowed doesn’t necessarily make it wise or prudent,” Strzok writes. This is a lesson for which he is to pay a price.
Strzok was at the center of a number of white-hot cases over his career and would have had ample material for a book even before his path crossed with that of Donald J. Trump.
That, however, is what fate had in store, and for as much as Strzok and his publisher may want this book to be about Trump or the counterintelligence business, it clearly can’t avoid being about him.
Can a gumshoe privately contemptuous of the Republican politician he’s investigating, who’s also violating his marital vows, and leaving evidence of the foregoing on a U.S. government-issued electronic device, also work by the book in his capacity as a top FBI investigator?
No, Trump and his supporters have fulminated, and they’ve sought to cast Strzok and Page as the faces of an ostensible conspiracy within officialdom out to get Trump.
Strzok, though, has always maintained that the answer is, in fact, yes — and he cites subsequent investigations which he says defended his work and that of others in the FBI’s Hillary Clinton and Russia investigations.
What Strzok told Congress, and he writes now, that he was simply a cog in a machine — a mighty bureau structured in such a way that no individual person’s personal feelings could influence the actions he or others might take officially.
He aims to tell the story from the cog’s eye view about what the whole team at the FBI uncovered.
That case, at least, Strzok is willing to make in detail, beginning with a gripping section about his role in one of the FBI’s great counterintelligence successes. In the early 2000s, the bureau detected, tracked, and then rolled up a big network of Russian sleeper agents who had been secretly living in the United States for years.
Strzok himself helped lead the work against some of these “illegals” in Boston, and his story about monitoring their clandestine shortwave instructions and discovering evidence confirming their origins is one of the strongest here. It could have been a book on its own.
Russian intelligence operations are sophisticated and dangerous, he writes. So Strzok and other officials were worried when they learned in 2016 that a junior aide to Trump’s campaign, George Papadopoulos, drunkenly revealed he’d been importuned by Russian operatives offering help with that year’s election.
That and other secret evidence put the U.S. intelligence community onto the hunt, which led in myriad directions amid the discovery of that year’s wave of “active measures” directed at the election to help Trump.
In the case of Strzok and the FBI, part of the work required assessing whether Trump and his camp were part of the scheme, and if so, who in the campaign might be involved.
From Papadopoulos, that led investigators to campaign chairman Paul Manafort — since revealed to have given polling data to a Russian contact linked with its military intelligence agency — as well as a junior aide, Carter Page, and national security adviser Mike Flynn.
The publication of Strzok’s book follows a Senate Intelligence Committee report that linked Manafort’s contact, Konstantin Kilimnik, strongly with Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU, which led the active measures in 2016.
What consequence might Manafort’s donations to Kilminik have had on those efforts?
“There are few, if any, innocuous reasons for Kilimnik’s interest in the polling data — it is far too detailed to serve as a simple display of the strength of the campaign. But it would provide a boon to someone who wanted to know where key voting blocs were, where winning over voters would provide the strongest belief in the race for Electoral College delegates. Someone like Russian government intelligence officers, who were beginning to place advertisements and targeted posts in U.S. social media.”
Manafort eventually was tried and convicted on charges that did not include alleged conspiracy with the Russians; special counsel Robert Mueller’s report concluded there was insufficient evidence for a conspiracy case against him or anyone else in the Trump camp.
The special counsel made clear that he also wasn’t absolving Trump of wrongdoing, and Strzok writes that counterintelligence cases seldom yield the kind of solid evidence that prosecutors require in order to go before a jury.
“‘We can’t prove this beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law’ often does not mean ‘This didn’t happen,’ he writes.
Strzok’s opening section seeks to illustrate why counterintelligence officers worry about a foreign government taking time to cultivate a source. Building a relationship with someone promising, including over a course of years or longer, can pay off if that person one day joins an incoming administration and finds himself Deputy Assistant Secretary of Secret Stuff — and a ready-made conduit for insights back to the foreign nation’s intelligence agency.
That’s what the “illegals” Strzok chased were doing: Watching students at Harvard and other parts of the Boston establishment matriculate up into the elite, keeping an eye on those who might one day prove useful to the foreign intelligence service, the SVR.
The long game
That’s also one reason FBI counterintelligence officials worried about the relationships people in Trump’s camp had, in one form or another, with important Russians in 2016.
Papadopoulos lied to investigators about his contacts with the Russians and served a brief prison sentence.
Manafort was sentenced to prison in connection with other crimes, albeit with questions unanswered about his intentions and full awareness. Officials conducted surveillance on Page for a time but never charged him — a subplot that Trump and critics have hammered into an attack on the whole Russian investigation.
In the case of Flynn, subsequent revelations have confirmed that by the time he’d entered government as national security adviser in the new Trump administration, Strzok and his compatriots were almost ready to close the file on him, too.
Then Flynn lied about his conversations with Russia’s then-ambassador to the U.S. and reawakened fears about his vulnerability to compromise, which set Flynn off on the legal odyssey that continues to this day.
But Compromised is Strzok’s story, and not only does he not reveal everything, he also must try to deal with all these Byzantine twists and turns involving what he knew then, what we now know, what we don’t know, and what he thinks it means.
Aficionados will welcome the insights he is able to provide about key moments in the story but newcomers may struggle to keep their heads above water.
For those with a solid background in the Clinton email and Russia imbroglios, Strzok’s account obviously is essential. He describes how he perceived very quickly, for example, that the nature of any alleged criminal transgressions in Clinton’s email case made it very unlikely that the Justice Department would prosecute her.
No matter who is involved, the law is too difficult to apply in all but the clearest-cut matters and officials believe their energies are better applied chasing bigger game, he says.
“Historically, trying to get DOJ to prosecute mishandling of confidential-level information was like trying to persuade a fraternity house that spiked seltzer is a real drink,” Strzok writes.
The story gets more serious.
Trump is elected. The outgoing Obama administration censures Russia for the interference. BuzzFeed publishes the now-infamous, unverified Russia dossier. The Flynn flap blows up. Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, sending the bureau into a tailspin — Comey’s assistant cries on Strzok’s shoulder. Special counsel Robert Mueller comes onboard.
And then Mueller fires Strzok. The text messages and the background with Page, which many readers know but which Strzok hasn’t described in detail, make him radioactive when the story becomes public.
Mueller and Strzok both become subject to intense political attacks and, in Strzok’s case, strangers begin coming by his house and harassing his family. Meanwhile the FBI exiles him, a career operator and counterintelligence specialist, to its human resources department.
Then, amid unrelenting criticism from Trump, the president’s supporters and from within the bureau and the Justice Department, the ax finally falls.
Strzok seems sanguine about investigators going back through materials from the Clinton email case, which includes text messages he says he barely remembers at that point — and which he hasn’t described for readers.
It also appears never to occur to him they might become public. He hasn’t appreciated how much the political situation in Washington has shifted.
“I was naive,” he writes.
Strzok’s anger burns in the passages about what he considers the betrayal and sophistry that justified his firing.
He sits with Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who says, per Strzok: “‘Pete, Horowitz said, ‘we’re not saying you acted with bias. We’re saying we can’t eliminate the possibility that bias played a role in your decision-making’.”
“How in the hell do I prove a mental negative? I thought,” Strzok writes … In fact, I argued” — with respect to the Clinton email case — “all the facts they had developed pointed to the opposite conclusion: if anything, my actions hurt Clinton and helped Trump. I don’t know what more I can say, I said, shaking my head.”
But Strzok’s text messages with Page made him an albatross around the neck of the FBI. The bureau dumps him to try to cool things off. It didn’t work. Criticism of DOJ and the FBI have persisted through until now, including in calls for the head of the director who came in after all this, Christopher Wray.
Readers’ enjoyment, if that is the right phrase, of Strzok’s book will depend on how much they buy his premise — that a flawed G-Man can leave his feelings at home and do his job by the book — and how much they sympathize with him as a narrator. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, probably will not be won over.
Strzok has sued the FBI over his termination, arguing it was politically motivated.
Some of what may trouble other readers about Compromised aren’t the author’s fault. Many of the biggest questions about this chapter in U.S. history still don’t have answers — from Strzok or anyone else on the outside.
What did Manafort know and think about what he was doing with his Russian friend? Only Manafort could say. What did Trump know and do? Only he could fully say. Et cetera.
So although Strzok lost his job at the FBI, the broader story doesn’t have an ending. In the author’s view, Trump is “compromised” — but he prepares readers for the prospect that nothing may come of that.
“One of the harshest realities that special agents must accept is learning to live with the knowledge that someone’s misdeed may not be punished,” Strzok writes. “This is a bitter pill to swallow, as every FBI agent I know is motivated by a profound desire to pursue justice. In this world, bad people sometimes get away with bad things. Some particularly thoughtful senior agents in Boston tried to convey that hard fact, but I wouldn’t feel the full weight of that lesson until the end of my career.”
Originally published: 2020-09-05 05:01:29