Friday, June 7, 2019

How did we get the Spygate Texts?

Anyone with an internet connection can right now read almost 8,000 text messages between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, a stunning win for transparency, but how did we even get to that point? The usual answer is: "Horowitz found them," which is true, but it's nested inside this larger tempest of #spygate, Mueller and Congressional machinations.

This post is focused on the discovery of the text messages, not necessarily on the release of them. But simply the story of these texts being lifted off of FBI archiving systems and tabulated is pretty incredible. This is how it went down, based on the information publicly available right now.

FBI archiving system works....kind of 

The FBI has a system that automatically stores texts sent on work-issued cell phones. Both Strzok and Page had FBI-issued, Galaxy 5 then Galaxy 7 phones, then iPhones issued by the Special Counsel's office, so the texts they sent to each other were automatically retained.

Note that these are only the communications between their respective work phones. Strzok and Page digitally communicated in a variety of ways, including work email, personal email, work instant messaging (via Microsoft's Lync product) and Apple iMessage. The FBI retained messages sent on work-based devices and platforms, but not ones sent on personal devices and platforms. Strzok and Page have refused to share the personal messages and apparently the DOJ has not forced the issue.


The FBI text message storage system is from a vendor who had been having issues pre-dating Spygate. A Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report specifically about text retention said:
"Prior to the OIG’s investigation into the FBI’s actions in advance of the 2016 election, during at least two unrelated investigations, one of which dates back to 2015, the FBI made the OIG aware of gaps in FBI text message collection capabilities."
So while the text message gaps seem very fishy, they don't seem to be unique to Spygate. Really, it's a poor reflection on Comey-era FBI leadership and their inattentiveness to or outright disdain for functional oversight.

It's also very clear that Strzok and Page did not fear anyone reading their texts, even though they knew the texts were being archived.

Horowitz and the first ask

So by the time the OIG (Horowitz) starts asking for these texts, they were all just sitting in a digital archive, waiting to be retrieved (most of them anyway).

Horowitz was months into a wide ranging review of the FBI's actions as part of the Clinton email probe. Comey's decision to re-open the case days before the election was a key point of scrutiny, but to his credit, Comey issued a statement saying he was "greateful" for the OIG review and pledged full cooperation.

Democrats on Capitol Hill were actually drivers of this OIG review, as was Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. All expressed a need for transparency and indicated that the public's trust in the FBI was at stake.

Unfortunately, we do not have the date Horowitz made an initial ask for text messages. But looking at the dates we do know, we can sort of work backwards.

A paragraph inside of a December 13th, 2018 letter from Horowitz to Senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley gives major insight into the text production process. I'm going to break it down into pieces here. Horowitz said:
"In gathering evidence for the OIG's ongoing 2016 election review, we requested, consistent with standard practice, that the FBI produce text messages from the FBI-issued phones of certain FBI employees involved in the Clinton email investigation based on search terms we provided."
Let's break that passage down a bit.

Horowitz is saying the initial request for text messages was entirely routine and in fact was not directed at Strzok and Page specifically, but rather at many members of the Clinton email investigation team.

Whose texts might have been pulled? I would start from this abbreviated org chart of the investigative team and draw a line at a certain seniority level simply for not giving the appearance you are digging through FBI executives files. But who knows, maybe they pulled the higher up's messages too!

My guess is it was from Strzok down. Texts from FBI Agent 1, FBI Agent 2, FBI Attorney 1 and FBI Attorney 2 are mentioned in the final OIG report so those were gathered at some point. 

The other mystery is, what search terms would they have asked for? Could have been "Trump", which would have given many many hits from Strzok's phone.

The Second ask

But we still don't have a date of the first ask. The next section is needed to get there:
"After finding a number of politically-oriented text messages between Page and Strzok, the OIG sought from the FBI all text messages between Strzok and Page from their FBI-issued phones through November 30, 2016, which covered the entire period of the Clinton e-mail server investigation. The FBI produced these text messages on July 20, 2017."
OK so July 20 is when the OIG received the second round of text messages. Work back from there.

How long would it take to produce all text messages between two FBI employees over a year plus time range? Probably more than two weeks right? To produce and filter and collate everything in a readable format. That would put the second ask in early July.

The first ask would likely be more than two weeks before that. So now we're into mid-June. Why does this matter?

Because mid-June is after Mueller's appointment and after Strzok had joined them. Strzok joined the Mueller team around June 3. Thinking about it from Horowitz's perspective, he is now pointedly investigating members of the most important investigative team on the planet at the time (the Mueller team), an uncomfortable place to be in.

DOJ is a bureaucratic place and turf wars are common. Honestly I'm surprised Horowitz even went so far as to ask for the messages knowing it included members of Mueller's team. He probably thought doing so would actually exonerate someone like Strzok and "insulate" Mueller's team from Trump's charges of bias. Of course, the opposite happened.

It's possible I'm not giving Horowitz enough credit here. Some have speculated that Horowitz's pursuit of the FBI text messages was a "brushback pitch" to Mueller. As in, "all your stuff better be on the up and up buddy, I'm watching." It's possible given the timeline I'm pointing to. We need more information to determine something like that definitively.

The Third ask and timeline

"Following our review of those text messages, the OIG expanded our request to the FBI to include all text messages between Strzok and Page from November 30, 2016, through the date of the document request, which was July 28, 2017. The OIG received these additional messages on August 10, 2017"
This is similar to the second ask but OIG extends the timeframe. Now instead of stopping at November 30th, 2016, they ask for all texts from these individuals through July 28th, 2017.

Pulling everything together, the timeline gets pretty fascinating. So lets lay that out:

All dates 2017
May 17-Mueller appointed as Special Counsel.
May 28-Lisa Page detailed to the Special Counsel team
Jun ??-Strzok joins Special Counsel team, replacing John Brown
Jun ??-OIG asks FBI for retained texts related to MYE that correspond to keywords
Jun 7-Trump nominates Chris Wray to be FBI Director
Jun 14-Mueller meets with Senate Intel Cmte leaders, they discuss not stepping on each others toes in respective investigations
Jun 20-Mueller meets with House Intel Cmte leaders, discuss investigations
Jun 21-Mueller meets with Senate Judiciary Cmte leaders, discuss investigations
Jun 25-Lisa Page "please don't ever text me again"
Jul ??-OIG gets batch of texts responsive to keywords. Alarming enough to ask for more
Jul 14-OIG responds to Senator Feinstein's Mar 3, 2017 letter inquiring about Sessions' recusal
Jul 15-Lisa Page completes her detail to Special Counsel and leaves team, turning in her Special Counsel issued iPhone
Jul 19-Strzok interviewed by Special Counsel. Flynn investigation discussed as well as other things
Jul 20-OIG gets large batch of texts ("second ask" above); Senate Judiciary Cmte confirms Wray, moving it to the full Senate
Jul 26-Pre-dawn raid of Manafort's home
Jul 27-Papadopoulos arrested at Dulles airport; OIG tells Mueller and McCabe about existence of texts
Jul 28-Strzok leaves Special Counsel team; OIG sends a new request for texts, extending the timeframe through date of request; McCabe lies under oath to OIG about WSJ article
Jul 31-Revised Flynn 302 filed without header; Lisa Page's iPhone reset to factory settings; all traces of Lisa Page on the iPhone are wiped
Aug 2-Revised Mueller scope memo; Wray assumes office of FBI Director
Aug 10-OIG gets the new batch of texts ("third ask" above)
Aug 11-Strzok turns in his Special Counsel issued iPhone
Aug 16-ABC has an article with the headline "Special counsel's Russia probe loses top FBI investigator," referring to Strzok
Aug 22-Strzok 302 filed

From then until December, no further articles about Strzok or Page, even though many reporters asked the Special Counsel's office for information. Also, HPSCI is asking to interview Strzok that whole time and getting rebuffed by Rosenstein.


In the above sections there were a few embedded questions. Those include:
-What day did Horowitz first ask for that text message keyword search?
-Which employees did the text message search include?
-What were the keywords asked for?
-What day did Horowitz ask for all text messages between Strzok and Page?

Then you have to look at the pivot point here: Horowitz telling Mueller about the texts on July 27th. There are a lot of questions I have surrounding that.

-Why did Horowitz wait so long (at least a week) to notify Mueller, knowing that Strzok was on his team?
-Why did Horowitz decide to notify in the first place?
-What did Horowitz actually show or tell Mueller?
-Did Horowitz give the same briefing to McCabe that he gave to Mueller? Did he brief anyone else?
-Why did OIG wait until after talking to McCabe and Mueller to ask for the extended date range of text messages?
-Why did Special Counsel's office wipe Lisa Page's phone knowing that potentially biased text messages were likely on there, having been briefed on it days beforehand?

Much more to learn.

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