WASHINGTON -- A former FBI attorney plans on pleading guilty to making a false statement in the first legal salvo fired by a federal prosecutor investigating the origins of the U.S. probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The felony charge, filed Friday in Washington's federal court, is part of a plea deal between the prosecutor, John Durham, and Kevin Clinesmith, 38, an attorney who used to work in the FBI's office of general counsel.
Under the deal, Clinesmith will admit that he altered the meaning of an email that agents relied upon in seeking to renew court-approved surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who was suspected of being a Russian agent. Page was never charged with any crime.
"Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email," Clinesmith's lawyer, Justin Shur, said in a statement. "It was never his intent to mislead the court or his colleagues as he believed the information he relayed was accurate. But Kevin understands what he did was wrong and accepts responsibility."
Clinesmith's misconduct was disclosed in a report released in December by the Justice Department's inspector general that sharply criticized how the FBI handled its secret surveillance on Page in 2016 and 2017. Even so, the felony charge is certain to be championed by President Donald Trump and his political allies as they seek to call attention to the conduct of federal law enforcement and intelligence officials who investigated possible collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign and Moscow.
By citing disparaging text messages from Clinesmith and other FBI employees, the president has accused law enforcement officials of plotting a coup against him. Court documents laying out the allegations against Clinesmith do not allege or reveal such a conspiracy.
Clinesmith's wrongdoing affects only a narrow aspect of the Russia investigation -- the surveillance of Page. It does not call into question the decision to start the probe, nor the gathering of intelligence by U.S. spies that determined that Moscow wanted to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump and Attorney General William Barr have said the investigation was improper and worse, but the inspector general did not find any evidence that it was politically motivated.
The charge came in a "criminal information," a court document that can only be filed with the defendant's consent and signals a plea deal has been reached. The criminal case is the first brought by Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut who was tapped last year by Barr to investigate how the FBI and intelligence agencies investigated Russia's interference in the 2016 campaign and Moscow's potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
The attorney general ordered the Durham investigation shortly after releasing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report in April 2019 that found that Trump's aides welcomed Russian offers of help during the race but failed to find evidence of a criminal conspiracy involving Moscow and Trump's campaign and associates.
Barr has been a sharp critic of the Mueller investigation and earlier FBI probe into Russia's interference, calling it "abhorrent" and a "grave injustice." In a news conference unveiling the Mueller report, Barr defended Trump from accusations of obstruction of justice by saying the president was entitled to feel frustrated and angry by the probe.