Hillary’s Candidate Briefing Was More Contentious than Mike Flynn’s

The DOJ IG Report on Carter Page revealed that FBI Agent Joe Pientka was selected as the FBI counterintelligence briefer for both Presidential candidates in 2016 in part to give him familiarity with Mike Flynn, shortly after the former DIA head became one subject in the UNSUB investigation into how the Trump campaign got advance notice of the Russian election operation.

The FBI selected SSA 1, the supervisor for the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, to provide the FBI security briefings for Trump and Clinton. 478 SSA 1 told us that one of the reasons for his selection was that ODNI had informed the FBI that one of the two Trump campaign advisors attending the August 17 briefing would be Flynn. He further stated that the briefing provided him “the opportunity to gain assessment and possibly have some level of familiarity with [Flynn]. So, should we get to the point where we need to do a subject interview … I would have that to fall back on.”

Since then, Republicans have never stopped wailing about how badly Flynn was treated in this briefing — never mentioning that Flynn was secretly working for Turkey when he sat in on this briefing, meaning FBI should have scrutinized him more closely than they did.

The CIA just released the latest chapter of its running history of Presidential briefing, the one covering Trump. (h/t Micah Zenko)

It provides accounts of the candidate briefings given to both Trump and Hillary. Its account of the first Trump one makes no specific mention of Pientka’s investigative role. Nor does it mention that at the time Flynn was asking “tactical” questions about the Middle East, he was on Turkey’s payroll.

Trump was accompanied by two advisors, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn. The briefing team, led by Gistaro, included six of the substantive experts and a colleague from the ODNI Transition Team who was available to record and take follow-up action related to any questions that might arise and not be answered on the spot.

Gistaro led off with a substantive overview of the highest priority issues the IC was following, then turned to his colleagues to elaborate on developments in their areas of specialization. They briefed on terrorism, cyber security, counterterrorism, ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the security situation in Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear program. Gistaro recalled that he was careful to watch the clock and intervene as necessary so that the briefers each had an opportunity to say their piece but did not run over their allotted time. Nevertheless, the briefing went on for two and a half hours, longer than scheduled, and even then could not cover all the planned subjects. It was agreed that a second session was necessary.

In this first session, Trump was primarily a listener. He did ask some “big picture” questions, reflecting the fact that the material was new to him. Because several of the issues related to matters Flynn had dealt with in the military, he was the most active questioner. In Gistaro’s words, “He was on his home turf.” Most of Flynn’s questions were on the Middle East and were quite tactical. However, a few of his questions, especially on Iran, raised policy issues and had to be turned aside for referral, if he wished, to the national security advisor. Trump’s verdict on the session was a “thumbs-up” to IC officers as he departed. Christie later described the briefing as outstanding.

Here’s the FBI summary of that briefing, which focused primarily on questions about Russia, not Turkey, which might have been really useful once FBI discovered that Flynn was secretly on their payroll.

The history separates its account of the second briefing from claims Trump made about the briefing days later in a town hall by several pages.

Trump received a second preelection briefing roughly two weeks later, on 2 September, also at the FBI office in Manhattan. Again, Trump was accompanied by Christie and Flynn. This one-and-a-half-hour briefing rounded out the agreed list of topics, focusing on cyber security, Russia, China, and North Korea. On this occasion, Trump had numerous questions, some of which raised policy issues. Most, however, reflected his interest in financial and trade matters and in press reports about Russia’s reported interference in the US election campaign.

At the briefing of 2 September, Trump told the briefers that he valued the first session in August and their expertise. They were surprised when he assured them that “the nasty things he was saying” publicly about the Intelligence Community “don’t apply to you.” Afterward, Flynn complimented the briefers in remarks to the press.


[O]fficials were anxious to see what issues related to intelligence would arise during the debates in 2016, including whether the candidates would make direct or indirect reference to information they had received in their preelection briefings. This anxiousness was reinforced before the formal candidate debates during a quasi debate on 7 September, when Trump and Clinton were questioned, separately, by NBC newsman Matt Lauer. On this occasion, Trump made reference to intelligence briefers’ “body language” in suggesting that they were “not happy” with policies of the Obama administration. These comments caused outrage in the following days among news commentators and former intelligence officers and prompted reporters to dig for information about what had transpired during Trump’s briefings.

Thus, unlike with some other instances, this account doesn’t make clear whether Trump was lying outright about his public comment. Notably, too, this account makes no mention of Flynn’s own role in lying about the briefing, which seems remarkable given the comment about his compliment to the briefers.

Given how the history soft-pedals these issues, it makes the description of the single Hillary briefing all the more jarring.

Clinton, although feeling under the weather and unavoidably delayed 20 minutes, joined the briefers in a small secure room (SCIF, in intelligence argot) at the FBI field office in White Plains, New York, on 27 August. Given all that Clinton was going through related to her handling of personal emails during the campaign, Gistaro regretted that the first question the security officer asked Clinton as she approached the room was whether she had any cell phones with her. The Secretary very professionally assured the questioner that she had left her cell phones at home

Hillary, of course, had been cleared of misconduct before that August 27 briefing, and was well-versed in the use of SCIFs. Yet she was treated by the security officer as a suspect.

Whereas Mike Flynn, who was quite literally working for a frenemy government during both of these classified briefings, and under investigation for suspect ties to Russia, was nevertheless freely served up answers to all the tactical questions he posed.

17 replies
  1. Yogarhythms says:

    Sometimes security tucks in their shirt but forgets to tie shoe string thoughts of HRC “But her Emails”.

  2. Silly but True says:

    The standard line is usually “the U.S. government has resources to do more than one thing at a time,” usually when dealing retroactively or with contentious issues. But it proves time and time again that it suffers from peripheral-vision loss and acts with single-minded myopia.

    One of the obvious problems that plagued Crossfire Hurricane was lack of diversity or too few investigators. It could have investigated Turkey & Russia, but clearly didn’t.

  3. BobCon says:

    “never mentioning that Flynn was secretly working for Turkey”

    It’s always worth noting Flynn was working for the Islamist authoritarian Erdogan who helped convinced Trump to sell out long time US Kurdish allies.

    The US foreign policy blob has decided that bringing back dangerous nutjobs like Flynn and dangerous incompetents like Kushner is a completely reasonable price to pay for driving Biden out of office. And they feel if that means encouraging the spread of Islamist authoritarians in Turkey and the Middle East, well, so what?

  4. Peterr says:

    Gistaro regretted that the first question the security officer asked Clinton as she approached the room was whether she had any cell phones with her. . . .

    Hillary, of course, had been cleared of misconduct before that August 27 briefing, and was well-versed in the use of SCIFs. Yet she was treated by the security officer as a suspect.

    This sounds to me like the security officer saying “this is the standard question we ask everyone, and I know you know that, but I have to ask it anyway.” Absent other context or information, this doesn’t sound like she’s being treated as a suspect to me.

    • emptywheel says:

      The same description doesn’t appear in the other first briefings. So something made this tense enough for Gistaro to record it. And given the way this history softens a slew of other things (my favorite is that it describes Trump being warmly received on his first visit to CIA without telling that he organized official clappers for the event), it seems highly likely there’s more going on here.

      • Silly but True says:

        Also, relying on “had been cleared of misconduct before that August 27 briefing” is a bit like saying it’s okay to date OJ because he wasn’t convicted of any crime.

        Yes, Hillary wasn’t sanctioned for misconduct, but that’s still a far cry from anyone being able to trust her with any electronic devices.

        • Marinela says:

          Usually sexism is subtle.
          If you not a women that experienced it in a man dominated world, you don’t see it.
          It is not human nature to put oneself in other people shoes, unless you experienced it first hand, sexism, racism, discrimination…

          And comparing Hillary to OJ who was charged of killing two people, is the proof you are not seeing it.

        • bmaz says:

          Oh fer christ’s sake, can’t trust Hillary with electronic devices is a ludicrous statement. She is fine.

        • J R in WV says:

          So, another fascist supporter dissing the democratic candidate while allowing the fascist TurkoRussian candidate to slide by with nary a hostile question?

          OK, go for it, fascist # 1…

      • Rugger9 says:

        I concur with your thinking on this, since truly routine requests (and there’s probably signage too) would not be mentioned, yet this was. It opens possibilities:

        1. The investigator thought that HRC was wired and wanted to get HRC in a violation of procedure.
        2. The mention was intended to neuter any utility of a subsequent recording in court proceedings because of the policy violation (IANAL) which would function similarly to how CA can squelch unauthorized recordings as evidence.
        3. Something else.

        It is remarkable to me just how visceral the HRC hate was in the Federal LEO community, especially in contrast to the DJT’s kid glove treatment.

      • Marinela says:

        “without telling that he organized official clappers for the event”

        +++ Seems to be standard operation for Trump. This clarifies some of the staged support he had in televised events like the debates, when the audience was clapping on cue when Trump was lying or spewing poison. Reminds me of the cowards I’ve noticed when they walk around with entourages to make themselves important, but they are unremarkable on their own.

        • Rugger9 says:

          Actually, the entire GQP propaganda machine uses astroturfing and kayfabe, look how many of those anecdotal stories of CRT among many others are told by “concerned citizens” or “average joes” that keep turning out to be GQP operatives or relatives.

          However, the courtier press refuses to look into their sources’ backgrounds when presented with a really juicy story. I for one am surprised the Pelosi’s-buying-a-South Florida-house story never got out of the fever swamps.

  5. Zirc says:

    While I am perfectly willing to believe the briefers treated Hillary worse than Trump, in and of itself asking her whether she had a cell phone doesn’t rise to the level of “contentious.” Is there anything else from which we can draw that conclusion?


    • Beth from Santa Monica says:

      it’s not that HRC was asked about whether she had a cell phone, it’s that the fact she was asked made it into the summary. As any judge will tell you, questions are not evidence; as any lawyer knows, they plant seeds.

  6. WilliamOckham says:

    That’s a fascinating document, written by former CIA IG, John Helgerson. You really have to read between the lines to understand what he’s up to. Take this quote, as one example:

    Trump had comments or questions about these and some previous PDB items that he had been pondering. For example, he asked that the IC use the name ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) rather than ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), on the basis that the group operated more widely than the name “Levant” implied.

    That’s a real gem of writing. It distills Trump’s incompetence and the utter contempt that the CIA felt for Trump into a couple of completely factual statements. Seriously, I’m in awe.

    Likewise, the bit about Clinton that Marcy quoted is also serving a purpose beyond the words Helgerson wrote. The focal point of that paragraph is career CIA guy Gistaro’s regret over what he saw as the FBI’s unprofessional (by implication because Clinton’s responsive was “very professional”) treatment of a serious candidate. This document has a very real undertone of the CIA knifing the FBI in the back over their treatment of Trump and Clinton during the election. I’ve read enough of Helgerson’s prior work to know that the undertone is the theme music.

    • Rayne says:

      That ISIS vs ISIL bit is loaded. I doubt Trump came up with that on his own. Considering his unaddressed war crime in Syria, I’m not at all surprised by the double-reverse backflip of what looks like stupidity.

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