After corresponding with someone at the CIA on the question, Clinesmith told the FBI agent that Page had been a “subsource” (not a source). In the language of the FBI, a source has a direct relationship with a government agency and can be directly tasked with gathering information, while a subsource has a relationship with a source (not the agency itself) and cannot be tasked by the agency. The FBI agent asked Clinesmith whether he had received that information in writing from the CIA, and Clinesmith told him that he had.
According to Clinesmith’s lawyers, Clinesmith “thought” that this was the case, but when he went back and reviewed the email, he “realized that it did not specifically address the issue of whether [Page] had been a source.” When Clinesmith forwarded the email to the FBI agent, he modified it to conform to his understanding, making it read, in relevant part, that Page was “not a ‘source’ but the [documents] will explain the details.” Clinesmith inserted the phrase “not a ‘source’” before forwarding the email. His involvement thereafter was limited, but ultimately, the final FISA application did not mention Page’s prior relationship with the CIA.
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We would not know any of this had the Justice Department’s inspector general not completed a lengthy 2019 investigation—part of a report that ran more than 400 pages—into the Page surveillance after it had become part of Trump and his conservative supporters’ broader narrative that the FBI had pursued a political vendetta against the president. The inspector general’s office broadly rejected this idea—explaining that it “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced” the FBI’s decisions—but it did find Clinesmith’s misrepresentation and referred that finding to the Justice Department for potential prosecution.
One might reasonably wonder why the Justice Department’s inspector general has spent all of this effort on the matter, but it is part of a larger and under-recognized pattern in which the office’s investigative choices—its decisions on which matters it aggressively pursues and which it does not—appear to closely track the interests of Barr and Trump. Somehow the office managed to produce hundreds of pages on the (ultimately lawful) surveillance of Page, while, nearly two and a half years since the putative end of the family-separation policy, it has not managed to finish a report on that subject.
When Clinesmith pleaded guilty this summer, some legal analysts questioned whether he had actually committed a crime, because he modified the email in question to conform to his actual understanding (an apparent misunderstanding) of the facts. (In their sentencing submission to the court, Clinesmith’s lawyers called his impression that Page was a subsource “an honest but mistaken understanding.”) Under the false-statements statute, however, Clinesmith’s false attribution of his view in writing to someone else—the CIA contact whose opinion actually mattered—was likely a crime. Still, at a time when many commentators have seen fit to treat Flynn’s guilty pleas as dispositive proof of his guilt, Clinesmith’s plea was a useful reminder that these pleas should not fully determine whether and to what extent courts decide that someone is actually guilty of serious misconduct.