Worthwhile investigations take time

I heard two award winning investigative reporters say that time is the single most important aspect of doing a full investigation into anything.   If you have the time to follow every lead, and go where that lead takes you, you will discover things that are impossible to learn if you’re working under a deadline.   To perfect any difficult thing, there is no substitute for time.   Robert Caro, the great biographer and historian, famously sometimes takes a year or longer to dig for the truth about a single disputed fact that troubles him.

Let’s take a moment to consider the gift of time itself, the single greatest gift we have, until we don’t have it any more.  Brother David Steindl-Rast gives a beautiful meditation on gratefulness for the gift of time and our ability to appreciate the wonders our senses provide us, if we take a few moments every day to pay attention.   He speaks midway through this beautifully illustrated TED talk by visionary nature photographer Louie Schwartzberg.   Well worth ten minutes to watch in its entirety, the monk’s inspirational short speech is cued up HERE (if you’re in a hurry).



Back to investigations, my own leisurely dive into my father’s life is a perfect example of the benefit of spending as much time as needed to gather something worthwhile.  Without any time limit, I carefully wrote out everything I know or could imagine about my father’s life.  I constructed this tricky puzzle, with many key pieces missing, in a darkened room, free from any thought that I had to rush.  In the end, after more than two years of doing this daily, I am finally able to truly understand my father’s motivations — in a way that was impossible for me to grasp as I was working toward it.   I don’t agree with every position he took, but I feel like I completely understand why he took each one.  That empathetic view was unimaginable to me as I was working over the sketchy puzzle in the dimness.

A long, thoughtful investigation will always be more fruitful than one done in a hurry.   We tend to miss details when we rush.  Sometimes these details can be very important.   The gift of time can cut both ways, as when it is extended or contracted for an unscrupulous purpose.

If, for example, A.G. Bill Barr empowers a federal prosecutor to launch a limitless, global exploration into the detailed investigation into Mr. Trump and associates that he calls “a travesty” based on the “flimsiest” of evidence, embarked on after illegal “spying” — after enough time and resources are invested something will likely be turned up about some irregularity or impropriety.    Something concrete to support Barr’s politically handy theory of partisan “presidential harassment” and baseless “spying” on a president who (in spite of massive proof to the contrary) took no help from Russia or anyone else.

As it turned out, in the case of “Russiagate,” there was incorrect information on two of the four original FISA warrants that began the surveillance and investigation into the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russian state actors who were later shown to have meddled directly in all fifty US states on behalf of Mr. Trump.  False information, perhaps a dozen instances of it, in at least two applications for the FISA warrants to wiretap Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page [1]. 

After enough digging by a team of prosecutors and investigators, a malefactor was found, an FBI lawyer who left out that Page had been an informant for the CIA at one time.    A smoking gun!    As announced a few days ago, this now unmasked traitor (who claims the mistake was inadvertent, not part of a Deep State coup d’etat against a duly elected American president) is going to plead guilty for this deliberate misstatement on an application for the original FISA warrant that got operation Crossfire Hurricane up and running.   

I’d always thought the standard of proof for a FISA warrant to be approved was fairly low.  I’d understood that something like 99% of them were approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  Though 99% of them are granted, based on probable cause to reasonably suspect a national security threat, the standard of proof to submit a warrant is higher than I supposed.   Here is an article extensively quoting an FBI insider’s description of how high the bar for a FISA warrant actually is.

That said, the DOJ’s own Inspector General, like the DOJ’s Special Counsel Mueller before him, and the Republican majority Senate Intel Committee since [2], determined that there was adequate legal predicate for the investigation of what is now known to be widespread, high level cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia, an investigation that resulted in numerous prosecutions and guilty pleas.   The DOJ’s IG pointed out the errors and omissions in the paperwork to get the FISA warrant and concluded that ambiguities in FBI and DOJ policy need to be tightened up.   He also made a referral for prosecution, which was not publicized much at the time.

It turns out the FBI lawyer was referred for prosecution by DOJ Inspector General Horowitz, not by the Barr/Durham criminal investigation [3].   But that is not for lack of effort by Barr/Durham who are determined to have some dramatic criminal indictments for an October Surprise to help their candidate.

With enough time and effort, a dogged team of investigators can usually turn up some kind of wrongdoing, about something.  If not Whitewater, for example, incriminating, irrefutable DNA on a blue dress.   Contrast this kind of thorough long-game investigation with one conducted under a tight deadline.

The tight negotiated deadline in the FBI’s five-day investigation into the sexual impropriety charge against Brett Kavanaugh is an example of a  investigation starved for time to investigate.   Even within that tight time frame, if the intent had been to verify or dismiss the allegation against the judge, the FBI could easily have learned if there was a house among that small circle of people at the gathering nobody specifically recalled (except for the girl who was traumatized) that fit the description the witness gave.   You walk up the stairs, bathroom on the left, bedroom directly across.   Who owned the home during the summer in question?   Did the parents work late every day?   Were they in town during the month the event nobody remembered took place? 

The answers to those relatively straight-forward questions make it more likely than not that one or the other was telling the truth, based on a now verified (or not) recollection of place.  Confirm the place, confirm the time frame, re-interview everyone there with this new information, other leads emerge, in time.

Of course, some investigations are merely for show, to demonstrate a willingness to investigate the truth or falsity of the statements of those involved, even if, as in the case of the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford controversy, the FBI spoke to neither Kavanaugh nor Blasey Ford, nor Kavanaugh’s high school best friend, who was allegedly also in the room, also drunk, laughing uproariously and finally throwing himself on top of the two teenagers struggling on the bed, allowing one to escape.

Time, the only gift any of us cannot do without.


[1]  Wikipedia

Carter William Page (born June 3, 1971) is an American petroleum industry consultant and a former foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential election campaign.[1] Page is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a one-man investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business.[2][3][4]

[2]  Wikipedia:

The Republican-controlled Committee released its final report on 2016 Russian election interference in August 2020, finding that despite problems with the FISA warrant requests used to surveil him, the FBI was justified in its counterintelligence concerns about Page. The Committee found Page evasive and his “responses to basic questions were meandering, avoidant and involved several long diversions.” The Committee found that although Page’s role in the campaign was insignificant, Russia may have thought he was more important than he actually was.[101]

[3] Wikipedia 

Horowitz did fault the FBI for overreaching and mistakes during the investigation. These included failing to disclose when applying for a FISA warrant to surveil Page in October 2016 that he had provided the Central Intelligence Agency details of his prior contacts with Russian officials, including the incident the FBI indicated made Page’s conduct most suspicious.[84] In addition, Horowitz found that Kevin Clinesmith, an attorney in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), intentionally altered an interagency email to exclude from the FISA warrant application that Page was a CIA source from 2008 to 2013.[84][92] According to the Horowitz Report, if the FISA court judges had been informed of Page’s CIA relationship, his conduct might have seemed less suspicious, although the Report did not speculate on “whether the correction of any particular misstatement or omission, or some combination thereof, would have resulted in a different outcome.”[84][93] Horowitz referred Clinesmith to prosecutors for potential criminal charges.[94] On August 14, 2020, Clinesmith pleaded guilty to a felony for making a false statement by altering the email.[95][96]

Horowitz attributed the warrant problems to “gross incompetence and negligence” rather than intentional malfeasance or political bias.[97] In a December 10, 2019, interview on Hannity, Page indicated that he had retained attorneys to review the Horowitz Report and determine whether he has grounds to sue.[98]

In December 2019, the Justice Department secretly notified the FISA court that in at least two of the 2017 warrant renewal requests “there was insufficient predication to establish probable cause” to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent.[99]

In a subsequent analysis of 29 unrelated FISA warrant requests, Horowitz found numerous typographical errors but just two material errors, which were determined not to impact the justifications for the resulting surveillance.[100]

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