Ex-FBI lawyer who altered email in Russia investigation seeks probation; prosecutors want imprisonment

Kristine Phillips

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WASHINGTON – Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who altered an email used to justify wiretapping a former Trump campaign aide, is asking to be spared from a prison sentence, acknowledging he had committed a crime but did not mean to mislead investigators. 

“Kevin Clinesmith made a grievous mistake. By altering a colleague’s email, he cut a corner in a job that required far better of him. He failed to live up to the FBI’s and his own high standards of conduct,” his attorneys said in a 48-page sentencing memorandum filed Thursday.

Clinesmith’s attorneys are asking a federal judge to sentence him to probation. Prosecutors, however, said Clinesmith deserves some prison time.

They argue that his “political or personal bias” against President Donald Trump may have motivated him to alter the email, and his actions led to an unjustified FBI surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. 

“This Court’s sentence should send a message that people like the defendant – an attorney in a position of trust who others relied upon – will face serious consequences if they commit crimes that result in material misstatements or missions to a court,” prosecutors said in court papers.

Clinesmith, who worked for the FBI for four years, pleaded guilty last summer to falsifying an email used to support an application to renew surveillance of Page. The FBI at the time was in the early stages of its investigation on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. The bureau was looking into Page’s ties to Russia as part of the investigation.

The altered email indicated that Page was “not a source” for the Central Intelligence Agency, even though the original email from the CIA indicated otherwise. The CIA had earlier told investigators in a memo that Page was an “operational contact” for the agency from 2008 to 2013 and provided information about his contacts with Russian intelligence officers. 

FBI surveillance: Ex-FBI lawyer Clinesmith pleads guilty to falsifying email in Russia probe in Durham’s first case

An FBI agent then used the altered email to convince a judge to grant surveillance of Page. 

Prosecutors said Page’s status as a CIA source undermined investigators’ belief that he was acting as an agent of a foreign power and should’ve been disclosed to the judge. Clinesmith’s attorneys said he did not knowingly lie about Page’s relationship with the CIA.

“When Kevin informed the agent (and others) that (Page) was not a source, he genuinely believed he was conveying accurate information,” the attorneys said. 

But prosecutors seemed skeptical, saying there’s no evidence that would’ve led Clinesmith to believe Page was not a source for the CIA, which made clear that Page provided information to the agency. 

Clinesmith’s attorneys also said that despite’s Clinesmith’s regrettable lapse in judgment, he has otherwise led a law-abiding life. The criminal case has left his reputation and professional career “in shambles,” and he’s been unable to support his family, the attorneys said.

The case against Clinesmith is the first to be brought by federal prosecutor John Durham, appointed last year by Attorney General William Barr to review the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation. Barr, in the waning weeks of the Trump administration, named Durham special counsel, a move that ensures the politically charged probe will continue during the Biden administration. 

Last year, a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general revealed several errors and misstatements that effectively inflated the justification to monitor Page in 2016 and 2017. The inspector general’s office revealed in its report that Clinesmith doctored the email and referred the matter to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.

FBI surveillance: DOJ acknowledges ‘insufficient’ cause to monitor former Trump aide Carter Page as suspected Russian agent

President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress seized on the inspector general’s findings to cast the Russia investigation as an attempt by the Obama administration to undermine Trump. The inspector general’s investigation, however, found that the FBI was justified in launching the Russia probe.

Last month, Page filed a $75 million federal lawsuit against the Justice Department and the FBI, saying the FBI targeted him for his work for the Trump campaign. Page also accused the FBI of extensively relying on information and documents from Christopher Steele, a former British spy, to justify its continued surveillance of him.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson