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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Peter Strzok Has a Warning About Russia—and Trump

In his new book out today, former FBI agent Peter Strzok eschewed the traditional complimentary blurbs from famous friends for a different tack. The back cover of Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump relies instead on some very famous criticism: Trump calling Strzok a “fraud.”

That approach seems fitting, since the reason Strzok wrote a book at all is that he was caught up in a unique 21st-century scandal, a surreal intersection of texts, tweets, Donald Trump, and Russia. Strzok became the most famous FBI agent in the world after his private, candid political comments and fears about Donald Trump were spread—cynically and wrongly—by Rod Rosenstein’s Justice Department as part of the inspector general’s review of the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Investigators also uncovered and publicized Strzok’s affair with fellow FBI lawyer Lisa Page.

“Fraud” is hardly even the worst thing Trump has called the former agent; Strzok’s partial list of presidential insults on page 303 fills nearly half the page: “incompetent,” “corrupt," “horrible,” “hate-filled” “totally biased,” “low,” “terrible,” “disgusting,” “stupid” “bad person,” “sick sick” person,” “con artist,” “evil person,” and much more.

Most of all, though, Trump accused Strzok of “treason,” of being the central figure in a Deep State plot to block and negate his presidential victory, of leading a “coup.” The irony isn’t lost on Strzok, who in 2016 found himself both leading the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and simultaneously racing to uncover the truth about the Russian links to the Trump campaign.

Indeed, part of what makes Strzok such an odd villain for the Trump age is that—apart from some inopportune intimate text messages—all evidence seems to show that Strzok approached the Trump investigation with integrity and independence. Through a fall where he and other senior FBI leaders possessed perhaps the most damaging secret ever on a presidential candidate, none of them uttered the slightest public hint.

“Everything the FBI did that fall hurt Hillary and helped Trump. All this talk about a coup—there are things right now that I and others know from 2016 that would still damage his candidacy today,” Strzok told me in a phone interview this week. “We’re all walking around and no one’s said a word. If this is a coup it’s incompetent.”

That practiced silence—the code of intelligence professionals—showcases the other irony of his new book and publicity tour: Until the moment his text messages became stunningly public, Strzok as a counterintelligence agent had tried hard to stay out of the public eye. He relates the story of how 19 years ago, as a relatively junior agent in Boston on September 11, 2001, he and his partner located the car in the Logan Airport parking garage left behind by the hijackers, and then how, as news crews descended on the scene, he had to step behind a concrete pillar to hide his face. Even then, his day job was tracking Russian spies, surveilling and watching two of what would later be exposed as “the Illegals,” the deep-cover Russian intelligence officers living ordinary lives in the United States that would inspire the hit FX TV show, The Americans.

The finding of those texts led to a rapid downfall: Strzok was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, reassigned from counterintelligence to human resources, roasted by Capitol Hill Republicans, villainized by the right-wing media, names as the supposed linchpin of the Deep State collusion plot by the president, and ultimately fired by the bureau. (Strzok became such an infamous figure on the right that he made the hit list of MAGA bomber Cesar Sayoc, a story he relates in the book.)

Meanwhile, most Americans have never known anything more in-depth about Strzok than those texts. After spending two years as a punch line and exclamation point, Strzok appears in Compromised for the first time as a fully formed human being.

I’ve spent a dozen years covering the FBI, written multiple books about the bureau and dozens of magazine articles, interviewed hundreds of its employees—from evidence technicians and analysts to six of its eight directors—and probably spoken to FBI personnel more days than not since 2008. And part of what’s so surprising about Strzok’s unique and engaging book—part memoir, part lesson in intelligence tradecraft, and part cri de couer—is just how utterly typical an FBI agent he appears to be.

Far from a conniving villain or Deep State plant, Strzok—who by the summer of 2018 was the deputy assistant director of the bureau’s counterintelligence division, the number two job in one of the FBI’s most important missions—was widely regarded in the bureau as one of the most promising counterintelligence agents of his generation. He comes across in the book as driven, aggressive, respectful, patriotic, and deeply bound to the principles and procedures of the FBI. He certainly is no Hillary Clinton superfan, as he finds himself repeatedly stymied by her team’s stonewalling of the email investigation. (By way of disclosure, Strzok and I have previously only met once in passing, though we do share the same literary agent.)

Strzok joined the bureau as a counterterrorism analyst, part of its post-Oklahoma City bombing expansion, and spent most of the 2000s as an agent working some of the most important national security cases. He uses that background in the book to reframe America’s understanding of what transpired regarding the FBI, the Trump campaign, and Mueller’s investigation. As he says, the Trump-Russia scandal was about Russia—not Trump. It was a counterintelligence operation, not a criminal one.

It started with valid intelligence leads about persons associated with the Trump campaign. “We would've investigated the same if Russia had had this response from the Sanders campaign, Clinton’s campaign, or any other candidate,” he said in our telephone interview.


To outsiders, the distinction between a counterintelligence and a criminal case may not seem important. To the bureau, they’re drastically different. Counterintelligence is less science, more art, Strzok’s book argues, a complex geopolitical dance to figure out what matters to adversaries, and observe, disrupt, deflect, or intercept that behavior as deemed necessary. Such cases rarely spill over into criminal courts. Most counterintelligence work remains invisible to the public—and the very best of it, like the decade of surveillance against the Illegals, remains invisible to the adversaries too.

The investigation that ultimately grew to focus on four figures of Trump world—Carter Page, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Mike Flynn—certainly didn’t begin with the idea of targeting Donald Trump himself.

“Simply put, we weren’t targeting anyone,” Strzok writes. “Rather, we were doing the work of FBI counterintelligence agents: investigating a credible allegation of foreign intelligence activity to see where it led. Our goal was to get to the root of what Russia had done, what it was doing, and its impact on national security. It started with Russia, and it was always about Russia.”

His book is the first real window into the confusion of the investigative team as they struggled to make sense of a campaign that, if not working directly with Russia, certainly encouraged Russian help, and subsequently an administration that didn’t exactly seem to go out of its way to push back on Russia.

“The Trump administration's actions vis-a-vis Russia were highly suspicious, highly consistent, and highly advantageous to America's historic adversary without clearly benefiting, and at times even disadvantaging, our own security and stability,” Strzok writes, thinking back on the political landscape in 2017. He’s quick to point out, too, that the Trump administration’s inexplicable friendliness to Russia continues to the present day, including a half-hearted-at-best condemnation of the poisoning of Putin critic Alexi Navalny.

Even as the Trump campaign scandal morphed from background noise in Washington to all-consuming media and congressional frenzy, it remained to the FBI a story fundamentally about Russia and Vladimir Putin. As Strzok writes, “Russia has been the alpha and omega of US counterintelligence throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.” (Or, as he described Russia more bluntly in one of his private text messages to Page: “F*cking conniving cheating savages. At statecraft, athletics, you name it. I’m glad I’m on Team USA.”)

Strzok is a uniquely strong voice against authoritarianism and threats to democracy in part because he’s seen what happens when governments fail or fall. He grew up overseas, following the career of his father, an international development adviser, and experienced four revolutions on three continents before he left for college, from Iran to Burkina Faso to Haiti. As he writes in the book, “I never thought I would have occasion to revisit those lessons at home, in the United States. And I never expected to see the grotesque traits of dictators in Haiti or Iran reflected in my own commander-in-chief.”

Now, as Strzok sees it, the danger of Trump’s presidency is how Trump so willingly seems to advance Russia’s interests. Trump is withdrawing the United States abroad and causing longtime friends to reconsider their own security alliances, even as his policies and rhetoric widen divisions at home. “If the US is not involved on the world stage, that’s an opening for Russia,” Strzok says. “Russia today is doing a phenomenal job driving their agenda with a weak hand. They’re not China—they don’t have a huge economy and industry-leading growth sectors. What’s incredible is that Putin, as he’s built a kleptocratic state and siphoned off the wealth of his nation, he’s still been able to parlay that into a meaningful role on the world stage.”

The threat from Russia has not diminished since 2016, Strzok says. In many ways, Trump’s actions at home and abroad have provided even more openings for the type of social media flame-fanning that the Internet Research Agency did to benefit Trump in 2016.

“They can see that we are at war with ourselves,” Strzok told me. “They see very well that they can exacerbate those tensions—tensions that already are to the point of killings, riots, and protests. The more we’re fighting ourselves, the less we’re focused overseas, the more they’re creating an opening for themselves.”

As he argues in the book and emphasized in our interview, the US government missed the warning signs of how social media was going to change the political information environment. While Russia had for decades tried and perfected disinformation and misinformation campaigns, the internet made possible much more powerful efforts than the faked State Department cables or rumors about a US senator’s sexuality that Russia had previously experimented with.

“They were always really good with propaganda and disinformation, but it's this boutique-type intel activity. It was a lot of effort for not much reward,” Strzok says. “My failure, the FBI's failure, the whole US government’s failure is we didn't understand how social media was a game changer for this disinformation work. We saw it on the counterterrorism side, with ISIS.0 We saw Russia using it in the near-abroad, like Ukraine. But none of us took the next step and asked, ‘Are we vulnerable?’ We were caught flat-footed.”

Moreover, he warns, the US still hasn’t made enough progress online to confront these challenges. “We haven’t societally fixed any of this. We haven’t even figured out whether this is an industry matter or a government one,” he says. “The press hasn’t solved any of this. If the GRU dumped the Biden campaign's binder of opposition research on Kamala Harris right now, every news organization and publishing house would race to publish it. I think if you reset the players and the facts of 2016, I’m willing to bet it plays out exactly the same way.”

His book’s title, Compromised, comes from the hunt to determine whether Trump or the campaign were indeed acting at the behest of Russian interests, wittingly or not. But his larger point is that Trump himself has fundamentally compromised and corrupted his office. Americans never had to worry whether previous presidents were working on behalf of US interests. With Trump, they do.

Most of all, though, Strzok argues in the book, too few Americans still see the 2016 Trump campaign scandal and the Ukraine scandal at the heart of the 2019 impeachment hearings as separate events, whereas a clear line joins them: Russia and its regional interests. “The only real difference is that in 2019, the compromised individual was not a long-shot presidential candidate but rather the chief executive of the United States, a man who could wield the full power of his office for personal gain—and whose malfeasance also implicated, and compromised, a much larger organization than a presidential campaign,” Strzok writes.

Strzok says he continues to be puzzled by the Trump administration’s unwillingness to strongly confront Putin’s behavior on the world stage. “It happens in some really weird ways—the odd decision to pull troops out of Germany, his bizarre comments about Montenegro, his refusal to engage in sanctions-like behavior with Russia over the Skripal poisoning or Navalny,” he explains.

It seems unlikely we’ll understand Trump’s true motives—and the pressures on his decision­making—anytime soon. But the truth, or something more closely approximating it, will come with time. As Strzok writes, “Truth can be devilishly opaque, and can’t always be explained in five minutes, or even in 500 minutes, let alone 280 characters. But I know this: Truth is ultimately knowable and incontrovertible.”

Unfortunately for Strzok, he won’t be there to keep pressing the investigations forward inside the FBI. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where, had he and Page used their personal cell phones, Strzok would never have become a national figure and would today be the special agent in charge of a midsize field office, like Minneapolis or Salt Lake City, preparing to rotate back to a top job in headquarters.

Russia, though, must be happy he’s no longer watching them.

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