FBI agent clashes with GOP at hearing on Russia probe

FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok testifies before the House Committees on Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform joint hearing on "Oversight of FBI and DOJ Actions Surrounding the 2016 Election" in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. on July 12, 2018. (REUTERS/Leah Millis)
Updated 13 July 2018
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FBI agent clashes with GOP at hearing on Russia probe

  • Peter Strzok testified publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team following the discovery of texts last year that were traded with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
  • Strzok repeatedly insisted the texts, including ones in which he called Trump a “disaster” and said “We’ll stop” a Trump candidacy, did not reflect political bias and had not infected his work.

WASHINGTON: An embattled FBI agent whose anti-Trump text messages exposed the Justice Department to claims of institutional bias vigorously defended himself Thursday at an extraordinary congressional hearing that devolved into shouting matches, finger-pointing and veiled references to personal transgressions.
Peter Strzok testified publicly for the first time since being removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team following the discovery of texts last year that were traded with an FBI lawyer in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
In a chaotic hearing that spanned 10 hours, he insisted he never allowed personal opinions to affect his work, though he did acknowledge being dismayed by Donald Trump’s behavior during the campaign. He also said he had never contemplated leaking damaging information he knew about the Trump campaign and called the hearing “just another victory notch in Putin’s belt.”
“At no time, in any of those texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took,” Strzok told lawmakers.
In breaking his silence, Strzok came face-to-face with Republicans who argued that the texts had tainted two hugely consequential FBI probes he had helped steer: inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s email use and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Agent Strzok had Hillary Clinton winning the White House before he finished investigating her,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Agent Strzok had Donald Trump impeached before he even started investigating him. That is bias.”
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa made Strzok read some of his texts aloud, including some with profane language. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte asked colleagues to imagine being investigated by someone who “hated you” and “disparaged you in all manner of ways.”
“Would anyone sitting here today believe that this was an acceptable state of affairs, particularly at an agency whose motto is ‘Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity’? I think not,” Goodlatte said.
Strzok repeatedly insisted the texts, including ones in which he called Trump a “disaster” and said “We’ll stop” a Trump candidacy, did not reflect political bias and had not infected his work.
He said the Trump investigation originated not out of personal animus but rather from concern that Russia was meddling in the election, including what he said were allegations of “extraordinary significance” of a Russian offer of assistance to a Trump campaign member.
He made clear his exasperation at being the focus of a hearing when Russian election interference had successfully sowed discord in America.
“I have the utmost respect for Congress’ oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart,” Strzok said.
The hearing brought to the surface a little-discussed reality of public service: Law enforcement agents and other government workers are permitted to espouse political views but are expected to keep them separate from their work. Strzok said he was not alone in holding political opinions, noting that colleagues in 2016 supported both Clinton and Trump but did not reflect those views on the job.
“What I am telling you is I and the other men and women of the FBI, every day take our personal beliefs, and set those aside in vigorous pursuit of the truth — wherever it lies, whatever it is.”
To which Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, responded, “And I don’t believe you.”
Strzok said under aggressive questioning that a much-discussed August 2016 text in which he vowed “we’ll stop” a Trump candidacy followed Trump’s denigration of the family of a dead US service member. He said the late-night, off-the-cuff text reflected his belief that Americans would not stomach such “horrible, disgusting behavior” by the presidential candidate.
But, he added in a raised voice and emphatic tone: “It was in no way — unequivocally — any suggestion that me, the FBI, would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate. So, I take great offense, and I take great disagreement to your assertion of what that was or wasn’t.”
Plus, he said, both the Clinton and Russia investigations were handled by large teams that “would not tolerate any improper behavior in me anymore than I would tolerate it in them.
“That is who we are as the FBI,” Strzok said in an animated riff that drew Democratic applause. “And the suggestion that I, in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI, would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen.”
The hearing exposed clear partisan divides in the House judiciary and oversight committees, as Democrats accused Republicans of trying to divert attention from Trump’s ties to Russia by excessively focusing on Strzok.
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee said he would give Strzok a Purple Heart if he could. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-New Jersey, said, “I have never seen my colleagues so out of control, so angry.”
But Republicans eager to undermine Mueller’s investigation berated Strzok, citing the texts as evidence of partisan bias within law enforcement. An inspector general report last month blamed Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page for creating an appearance of impropriety through their texts but found that the outcome of the Clinton investigation wasn’t tainted by bias.
At one point, Rep. Louis Gohmert, a Texas Republican, invoked Strzok’s personal life by alluding to the fact the texts were exchanged while he and Page were in a relationship. Gohmert speculated about whether he looked “so innocent” when he looked into his wife’s eyes and lied about the affair.
The comments sparked immediate objections from Democrats, who called them outrageous, and Strzok was livid. He told Gohmert the fact that he would say that “shows more what you stand for” than anything else. Gohmert tried to shout over him and the committee chairman vainly tried to restore order.
When Strzok declined to answer some questions on the Russia probe, Goodlatte suggested Republicans might recess the hearing and hold him in contempt. Democrats objected and Goodlatte eventually let the hearing proceed.
In his opening statement, Strzok acknowledged that while his text message criticism was “blunt,” it was not directed at one person or party and included jabs not only at Trump but also at Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
He said he was one of the few people in 2016 who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with the Trump campaign, and that that information could have derailed Trump’s election chances. But, he said, “the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
FBI Director Chris Wray says employees who were singled out for criticism by the inspector general have been referred to internal disciplinary officials. Strzok’s lawyer said he was escorted from the FBI building last month as the disciplinary process proceeds.
Page is expected to speak to lawmakers at a private meeting Friday.


Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

Updated 19 November 2018
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Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

  • Some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops
  • ‘It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps’

LAREDO, United State: They started work in the cool of the morning and moved quickly, uncoiling reel after reel of vicious-looking fencing and tying it with barbed wire to green poles hammered into the ground.
Over the course of three days, a gleaming, shoulders-high barrier of concertina-wire emerged like a silver snake along a lush riverbank, stretching as far as the eye could see.
This was the work of 100 or so American troops from the 19th Engineer Battalion, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Rather than finding themselves in a far-off warzone, the soldiers are in Laredo, a busy border town overlooking a stretch of the Rio Grande river in southwest Texas, carrying out controversial orders from President Donald Trump.
He has sent about 5,800 troops to the border to forestall the arrival of large groups of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico and toward the US, in a move critics decry as a costly political stunt to galvanize supporters ahead of midterm elections earlier this month.
Before the election Trump called the matter a “national emergency” and warned that so-called migrant caravans were an “invasion” with “some very bad thugs and gang members.”
So far at least, the most visible aspect of Trump’s deployment is the fence, a visible deterrent and physical obstacle to migrants, designed to corral would-be asylum seekers toward organized points of entry into the US.
Over the weekend, Lt. Alan Koepnick’s platoon could be seen stringing concertina wire, which is built to snag clothing, along one edge of a quiet riverside park near downtown Laredo.
As families walked dogs, grilled sausages and relaxed, the soldiers mounted the wire, occasionally ripping their camouflaged uniforms on its metal barbs.
Koepnick said some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops.
“But there’s also been a lot of support, people coming in, vets shaking our hands, bringing us cakes, water, things like that,” Koepnick said.
About 100 yards (meters) behind him, a group of people on the Mexican side of the river could be seen standing on the bank.
“You’ll see people across the river cursing at us in Spanish, throwing bottles at us. But on this side it’s more positive,” Koepnick said.
He and his soldiers were unarmed, but a group of armed military police officers stood by to provide “force protection.”
Under US law, the military is not allowed to conduct domestic law enforcement in most cases, so soldiers here will not have any direct interactions with migrants.
Trump created a media whirlwind by sounding the alarm about the migrant caravans before the November 6 elections. He has mainly stopped raising it since, though last week he praised the military’s work.
“They built great fencing, they built a very powerful fence,” said Trump, who wants to build a hardened wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border.
Laura Pole, a British tourist visiting Laredo for the third time, was less enthusiastic.
“It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps,” she said, but added: “I really don’t know what’s the best thing to do.”
The border mission has put the supposedly non-political military in an uncomfortable spotlight.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has hit back at critics who say the Pentagon should not be doing Trump’s political bidding, saying “we don’t do stunts.”
He visited troops on the border last week and reiterated that their job in the short term was to assist under-resourced Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and put up physical obstacles.
But “longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined,” he said.
After some rank-and-file troops grumbled about the purpose of the mission to US media last week, they are now under strict instructions not to voice personal opinions to the press.
Several soldiers AFP spoke to said their time on the border provided valuable real-world training, albeit without the risks of combat.
“We have a very large group of brand-new soldiers and it’s really good for them,” Corporal Samuel Fletcher said, citing a chance for the green troops “to do real work and put their skills to use.”
In Laredo, large groups of migrants from the caravans in Mexico had not arrived.
Instead they were mainly headed to Tijuana, about 1,300 miles away in San Diego, where authorities say more than 3,000 have already arrived.
Still, a CBP agent, who was not authorized to give his name, said he was glad of the military assistance as each day, “hundreds” of migrants attempt to cross the approximately 30-mile stretch of border he patrols.
The military deployment is set to wrap up December 15 and it is not clear what will become of the wire fencing.
Already, the winds whistling down the Rio Grande valley are strewing trash, clothing and plastic bags along the jagged wire.
“Nobody seems to know when it’s coming down. It’s not really our decision,” said Koepnick.
“If we are told to take it down, we will take it down with a smile on our faces, like good soldiers.”