Review of Russia’s research grows as F.B.I. Witnesses are interrogated


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WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors who reviewed the origins of the investigation in Russia have asked witnesses specific questions about any anti-Trump bias among former F.B.I. officials who are frequent targets of President Trump and about the first steps they took in the Russian investigation, according to former officials and others familiar with the review.

Prosecutors, led by John H. Durham, the United States attorney in Connecticut, have interviewed about two dozen former and current members of F.B.I. officials, people said. Two former senior F.B.I. Agents are helping with the review, people said.

The number of interviews shows that Mr. Durham’s review is more advanced than previously known. It has served as a political critical point since Attorney General William P. Barr revealed in the spring that he planned to examine the beginnings of Russia’s investigation, which Trump and his allies have attacked without evidence as a plot of police and intelligence. officials to prevent him from winning the 2016 elections.

Closely supervised by Mr. Barr, Mr. Durham and his investigators have sought help from the governments of countries listed in right-wing attacks and unfounded conspiracy theories about Russia’s investigation, causing criticism that they are trying to give the Mr. Trump a political victory. instead of conducting an independent review.

And on Thursday, Mick Mulvaney, the interim cabinet chief of the White House, linked Mr. Durham’s investigation to the Ukrainian scandal, enraging people within the Department of Justice. But Mr. Mulvaney’s comments also highlight the fact that Ukraine is a country in which Mr. Durham has sought help. His team has interviewed private citizens of Ukraine, a Justice Department spokeswoman said without explaining why.

A spokesman for Mr. Durham declined to comment. Barr said he considered some investigative steps to “spy,quot; on Trump’s campaign and that there was a “failure among a group of leaders,quot; in the intelligence community. He has said that Durham’s review began in part to avoid future missteps.

Durham has not yet interviewed all F.B.I. officials who played key roles in opening the Russian investigation in the summer of 2016, said people familiar with the review. He has not spoken with Peter Strzok, a former senior counterintelligence official who opened the investigation; former director James B. Comey or his deputy, Andrew G. McCabe; or James A. Baker, then the general counsel of the office.

These omissions suggest that Mr. Durham may be waiting until he has gathered all the facts before asking the main decision makers in the Russian investigation.

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Although the revelations that Durham is examining politically dyed accusations and direct conspiracy theories about the origins of research in Russia have provoked criticism, naturally, he would have to exhaust all the clues to conduct a thorough review.

The president granted Mr. Barr sweeping powers for review, although he did not open it as a criminal investigation. That means he gave Mr. Durham the power only to read materials that the government had already gathered and to request voluntary interviews with witnesses, not to cite witnesses or documents. It is not clear if the review status has changed.

Mr. Durham’s investigators appeared focused on one point in Mr. Strzok, said a former official who was interviewed. Strzok opened Russia’s investigation in late July 2016 after receiving information from the Australian government that the Russians had offered harmful information about Hillary Clinton to a Trump campaign advisor. Mr. Durham’s team has asked about events related to the Australian tip, some of the people familiar with the review said.

Mr. Durham’s team, including Nora R. Dannehy, a veteran prosecutor, has questioned witnesses about why Mr. Strzok drafted and signed the paperwork to open the investigation, suggesting that it was unusual for one person to take both Steps. Strzok began the investigation after consulting with F.B.I. leadership, former officials familiar with the episode said.

Durham has also questioned why Mr. Strzok opened the case on a weekend, again suggesting that the step might have been out of the ordinary. Former officials said McCabe had ordered Strzok to travel to London immediately to interview the two Australian diplomats who had heard about the offer of the Russians to help Trump’s campaign and that he was trying to make sure to take the first necessary administrative steps. .

It is not clear how many people Mr. Durham’s team has interviewed outside of F.B.I. Their investigators have questioned officials of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but apparently they have not yet interviewed C.I.A. staff, people familiar with the review said. Durham would probably want to talk to Gina Haspel, director of the agency, who ran her London station when the Australians transmitted explosive information about Russia’s political dirt offer.

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According to the people, many of the questions of Mr. Durham’s team overlapped with those that the inspector general of the Department of Justice, Michael C. Horowitz, raised in his own view on the aspects of Russia’s investigation.

Mr. Horowitz’s report, which is likely to be made public in the coming weeks, is expected to criticize the actions of law enforcement officials in the Russian investigation. Mr. Horowitz’s findings could provide information on why Mr. Barr thought Russia’s investigation needed to be examined.

Mr. Durham’s questions seem to focus on elements of conservative attacks on the origins of Russia’s investigation. It is unclear whether he has asked about other parts of the extensive investigation, which has grown to include more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants, 13 requests to foreign governments to obtain evidence and interviews of some 500 witnesses.

In his review, Durham has asked witnesses about the role of Christopher Steele, a former intelligence officer from Britain who was hired to investigate Trump’s ties with Russia by a company that in turn was funded by Democrats. Law enforcement officials used some of the information Mr. Steele compiled in a now infamous dossier to obtain a secret telephone intervention on a Trump campaign advisor, Carter Page, who they suspected was an agent of Russia .

The president and his supporters have vilified Mr. Steele, saying that investigators should have kept their information out of the request for wiretapping because they saw it as a prejudice against Mr. Trump. Steele’s information served as a piece of the long request.

They have accused the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice not to reveal that the Democrats were funding Mr. Steele’s investigation, but the request for wiretapping contains an explanation of a page that alerts the court that the person who commissioned Mr. Steele’s investigation “probably I was looking for information “to discredit Mr. Trump.

Mr. Durham’s researchers asked why F.B.I. the officials would use unproven or incorrect information in their request for a court order that allows for telephone intervention and seemed skeptical about why the agents trusted Mr. Steele’s file.

The inspector general has also expressed concern that the F.B.I. He inflated Mr. Steele’s value as an informant to get Mr. Page’s phone calls. Mr. Durham’s researchers have done the same, according to people familiar with his review.

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Mr. Horowitz has asked witnesses about an assessment by Mr. Steele that MI6, the British spy agency, provided the F.B.I. after office officials received their file on Trump in September 2016. MI6 officials said Steele, an expert in Russia, was honest and persistent, but sometimes showed a questionable judgment in pursuing goals others saw as A waste of time, two people familiar with the evaluation said.

A former official said that in his interview with Mr. Durham’s team, he rejected the idea that police and intelligence authorities had planned to thwart Mr. Trump’s candidacy, stating facts that prove otherwise.

For example, the former official compared the management of F.B.I. of his two investigations related to Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. Agents openly investigated the use of a private email server by Ms. Clinton but kept secret their counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign. If the F.B.I. If they had tried to reinforce Ms. Clinton’s candidacy and hurt Mr. Trump’s, they could have buried the investigation by email or taken more open steps in the Russian investigation.

Instead, the former official said, the opposite happened.

The former official said he was calm about the presence of John C. Eckenrode, one of the former senior officials of F.B.I. agents assisting Mr. Durham. Like Mr. Durham, who investigated C.I.A. torturing detainees abroad, Mr. Eckenrode is also familiar with high-risk political investigations.

He is probably best known for working with Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the former United States attorney who in 2003 was appointed to investigate the identity leak of an undercover agent of C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame, to a journalist.

“Jack is a shooter as direct as you can get in the F.B.I.”, Asha Rangappa, a former F.B.I. agent, said Mr. Eckenrode, a friend. “It’s the first reassuring thing I heard about this review.”

Mr. Eckenrode and Mr. Durham seem to know Mr. Eckenrode’s time as an agent in New Haven, Connecticut, where Mr. Durham has spent most of his career as a prosecutor. Eckenrode also worked in Boston and eventually led the F.B.I. in Philadelphia before retiring in 2006.

Adam Goldman reported from Washington and William K. Rashbaum from New York.

Follow them on Twitter: @adamgoldmanNYT and @WRashbaum.

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