Ex-FBI lawyer sentenced for altering Russia probe email

“A former FBI lawyer was sentenced to probation on Friday for altering an email the Justice Department relied on in its surveillance of an aide to President Donald Trump during the Russia investigation,” AOL News reported on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

“Kevin Clinesmith [photo, left] apologized for doctoring the email about Carter Page’s relationship with the CIA,” saying he was “ashamed” of his “poor judgment.” Read story here.

The seemingly light sentence may outrage Trump supporters, “who have long asserted that the Russia probe was a witch hunt riddled with misconduct, particularly as it involved Page and the government’s surveillance of him,” the story continues, noting that, “Prosecutors had sought a prison sentence of several months.”

But it’s an established fact that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, in ways that benefited Trump; and while the Mueller probe didn’t find collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence operatives, there was clear misconduct by campaign officials and members of Trump’s immediate family, and the campaign eagerly accepted emails they knew were stolen. Any claim that FBI conduct violated Trump has to be considered in the context that he and his campaign engaged in reprehensible conduct.

Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering a 2017 email he received from the CIA to say Page wasn’t a “source” for an FBI request for a surveillance warrant when he was. Page, an investor in Russian oil assets and Trump friend and adviser, was suspected of involvement with the Russian election shenanigans. The Mueller probe didn’t come up with that, and the FBI afterwards came under severe criticism for how it handled its investigation of Page. The CIA connection is that Page provided information to that agency that he acquired in the course of his business dealings involving Russia, which is pretty commonplace; the CIA often seeks to monitor other countries by getting information from such sources. This isn’t spy-novel stuff.

There are a lot of arcane nuances to this case that can make keeping it in proper perspective hard for people looking for partisan motivations and nefarious plots. For example,

“Clinesmith and his lawyer … have maintained that he did not know that he was altering the email in a way that made it false and had honestly believed from the information that he had received that Page was not a direct source for the CIA ….”

In other words, he denies any corrupt or partisan motive. And,

” … [T]he presiding judge of the surveillance court, said that while candor with the court was essential, he did not believe that Clinesmith altered the email for his own personal benefit. He also said the mistakes in the warrant applications were so numerous that it was possible the fourth one Clinesmith was involved in would have been approved even if the information presented to the court had been complete and Page’s relationship with the CIA properly disclosed.”

In other words, the adage “no harm, no foul” may apply to what he did.

My main reason for posting this story is that I want to make some broad-brush points about government and human nature in general, as follows:

  • We should want people who work in government to be honest, comply with laws, and do their jobs properly. When they don’t, someone’s rights may get violated, or the citizens they serve may get hurt in other ways.
  • That said, government employees, like everyone else, are human. And human beings are imperfect; they make mistakes, they tell white lies, they yield to temptation. Expecting people to be superhuman just because they work in government isn’t reasonable. We’ll never get that, because no one’s capable of being perfect.
  • So what we do instead is supervise people and hold them accountable for their mistakes and bad judgments. Clinesmith, a lawyer in his 30s, graduated from Georgetown Law — a school known for preparing people for government careers. He won’t have one now. After working for the FBI for 5 years, this misconduct cost him his job and future government career prospects. In other words, he’s been held accountable, there have been consequences, and that’s how it’s supposed to work. The system hasn’t broken down, it’s working as it should.
  • Another essential part of this corrective system we depend on in lieu of unattainable human perfection is that when you screw up, you might it right (this applies in business dealings, too); if you lied, you come clean; you admit your mistakes and try to learn from them. A scene from Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 “Gettysburg” film (see video below), whether it’s historically accurate or not, illustrates a path of wisdom in managing human weaknesses and failings.
  • Altering evidence is a no-no. A lawyer, especially, should know you don’t tamper with evidence, e.g., emails that may become evidence. You especially don’t mess with evidence used to get a warrant against someone. There should be serious consequences for a lawyer falsifies evidence in any type of legal proceeding — even if it was careless, rather than intentional; or for a “good” (?) motive, not an evil or corrupt one.
  • We need to have faith in our government institutions, especially those with investigative or law enforcement responsibilities. The FBI has got to weed out agents, lawyers, managers, and other officials who act dishonestly in building cases, seeking warrants, prosecuting defendants, etc. Terminating Clinesmith’s FBI career is the right thing to do. While he’s probably no more “human” than the rest of us, when you’re handling that kind of sensitive work, you’ve got to dot the i’s and cross the t’s; and if you can’t or won’t do that, you don’t belong there.
  • Parenthetically, the same applies to journalists who embellish facts to get a big story; their job is to report news, not make it up, and if they can’t do report events honestly and accurately, they don’t belong in the news profession. We have to be able to trust the news.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. This cuts both ways. Trump’s lying and obstruction of justice is vastly more egregious than Clinesmith’s. But that doesn’t excuse Clinesmith’s misconduct. On the other hand, his misconduct doesn’t render Trump innocent or excuse his misbehavior. Neither of these guys is as pure as Snow White, but one is far worse than the other, and did far more damage to the public interest. That goes to keeping things in perspective; you use a bucket to put out a small fire, and a fire hose to put out a big fire.
  • By far the biggest issue here is the widespread and pervasive distrust of our government and governing institutions. We aren’t victims of a despotic government. We choose our leaders, and we’re ultimately in control of what our government does and how it treats us. We like to say the people who run the government and carry out its tasks are “public servants,” and government buildings are “the people’s house.” If that’s what you really want, you can’t go around expecting those people to be superhuman, and when they aren’t, use that as an excuse to put in a despotic ruler; you have to let the system of accountability deal with the inevitable human mistakes, failures, and foibles, and reject the notion that killing democracy is the solution to democracy’s shortcomings. This is where Trump’s supporters are falling short.

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0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. trumpster behavior lying, thieving, falsifying documents #

    Should be disbarred [because] he falsified documents. [This comment has been edited. Some material has been deleted.–Ed.]

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    He possibly will be, because a felony conviction often results in disbarment. While the linked news story doesn’t specify whether he pleaded guilty to a felony or a misdemeanor, a Fox News story here says “Clinesmith’s guilty plea was to an offense that carries a maximum term of imprisonment of five years and a fine of up to $250,000,” which clearly identifies it as a felony, as a misdemeanor sentence can’t exceed q year in jail.