The FBI whistleblower who is cooperating with a Justice Department probe of the bureau was an early skeptic of false reports that said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had done something inappropriate with a Russian-born scholar at Cambridge University in England.
Agent William J. Barnett, who worked on the Crossfire Hurricane team investigating President Trump and his aides, said the allegation made no sense and was discredited by foreign intelligence agencies. “Not plausible,” he said.
The claim about Flynn and a Russian woman was repeated in 2017-18 by major U.S. newspapers as another suspected instance of possible Russian collusion by a Trump associate.
Now, new evidence has emerged, capped by Mr. Barnett’s testimony last month.
It was not known until recently that the FBI — in an official Jan. 4, 2017, closing document — had cleared Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, of any inappropriate Russian contacts, including at Cambridge.
The document was uncovered by U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen, whom Attorney General William P. Barr tapped to review the Flynn perjury prosecution. Mr. Jensen now has joined U.S. Attorney John Durham’s staff, which is looking at how the FBI opened and conducted the Trump inquiry.
The Cambridge setting in 2014 was a dinner in honor of Flynn, who was in his final days as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Among the academic diners, the only woman present was Svetlana Lokhova, a Russian-born British citizen who later wrote a book on Kremlin espionage. At dinner’s end, Flynn left with his DIA handler from the U.S. Embassy. Ms. Lokhova never saw him again.
The dinner remained unnoticed until 2017, when news stories, first in The Wall Street Journal, reported that something inappropriate had happened. The dinner became part of Trump-Russia lore telling of a supposed Flynn-Lokhova conspiracy.
Ms. Lokhova says she knows who started the smear: FBI informant Stefan Halper, a Cambridge professor and longtime Washington national security figure. The FBI hired and dispatched him to spy on the Trump campaign, picking volunteers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos as targets for tape-recorded chats. They never incriminated themselves.
Ms. Lokhova made her allegation in a defamation lawsuit filed in Virginia against Mr. Halper and news media outlets. Dismissed by a U.S. District judge, the case is now on appeal.
In the meantime, the Jan. 4, 2017, FBI closing memo was released — written by Mr. Barnett when he worked the Flynn case.
It quoted a confidential human source (CHS) who told the FBI that at an unnamed event for Flynn, whom the FBI code-named Crossfire Razor, [redacted name] “surprised everyone and got into CR’s cab and joined CR on the train ride to [redacted]. The CHS told agents that the unarmed person’s father ‘may be a Russian oligarch’ The CHS could not provide further information on CR trip.”
In her appeal brief, Ms. Lokhova asserts that the FBI document refers to the 2014 Cambridge dinner. The CHS, she says, is Mr. Halper and that she is the person who supposedly got into the cab. She told The Washington Times that it is impossible that Mr. Halper witnessed this because it never happened and he was not at the dinner.
Mr. Halper declined to comment through his attorney to The Times on whether he attended the dinner or provided the Lokhova story to the FBI.
The Jan. 4 document said the FBI ran the person’s name (Ms. Lokhova) through bureau databases and found no derogatory information. The FBI also submitted the name to an unspecified source that also came up empty. This may have been a check with foreign intelligence agencies.
“The FBI is closing this investigation,” the document says.
In his interview with Mr. Jensen, Mr. Barnett told of the CHS allegation against Flynn with a new tidbit — the year 2014, which was not redacted. This dovetails with the date of the Cambridge dinner.
Mr. Barnett said the source, unidentified in the Jensen report, “unexpectedly left the event The source alleged Flynn was not accompanied by anyone one other than [redacted].”
Mr. Barnett said he believed this lead should have been investigated. He added the new detail that the FBI checked “foreign intelligence agencies.”
According to the Jensen report, Mr. Barnett said he “found the idea Flynn could leave an event, by himself or [redacted] without the matter being noted as not plausible.”
“With nothing to corroborate the story, Barnett thought the information was not accurate,” the Jensen report says.
Mr. Halper filed a brief in the Lokhova lawsuit on Sept. 11, saying there is no evidence he is the news media’s source.
Ms. Lokhova “has not sufficiently pled that defendant had prior knowledge of, or personally made, any of the statements published ” the brief says.
The FBI’s pursuit of Flynn during the Obama administration did not end there, however. Once then-FBI Director James B. Comey learned that Flynn had spoken by phone with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition, he stopped the case-closing.
Flynn ended up pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents. Mr. Barr has moved to dismiss the case based on a belief that Flynn is innocent and that special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors or the FBI withheld favorable evidence.