Sunday, August 19News That Matters

Inside Mueller's FBI team


President Donald Trump has repeatedly hurled insults at the FBI agents working on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 campaign. Rudy Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney who’s now Trump’s lawyer, has attacked them as “stormtroopers.”

The vitriol is unsurprising. The agents are powering an investigation that has shadowed Trump’s entire presidency — and they are mostly unknown to the public, making them easy targets. They are a mix of bureau veterans and relative newcomers handpicked by Mueller and his prosecutors to handle the highest-profile and most sensitive federal investigation in a generation.

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To assemble this portrait of Mueller’s FBI team, POLITICO scoured court records, news accounts and press releases and conducted more than two dozen interviews with defense lawyers and witnesses as well as with current and former FBI agents.

The agents who form the core of Mueller’s investigative team — who work mostly from a southwest Washington office complex whose only distinguishing feature may be the network TV camera regularly posted near the entrance — have a wide range of skills, with some specializing in financial frauds, others in counterintelligence or corruption, and still others adept at investigating computer hacking and other forms of cybercrime.

Mueller’s FBI crew appears to be a combination of agents who were already working aspects of the investigation before the former FBI director took over a year ago, either because of their expertise or their location, and a set of volunteers who jumped aboard or were invited to join as the special counsel staffed up.

“The agents come two ways,” said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago, now with Berkeley Research Group. “One is geographic. But, as you’re constructing your perfect investigative team, if you have your druthers and there’s agents you’ve worked with in the past, wherever they are in the country, on a case like this you do reach out and say, ‘Would you like to be involved in this?’”

Those who said yes include Omer Meisel, a former Securities and Exchange Commission investigator who cut his teeth as a young FBI recruit probing the collapse of Enron with Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann nearly two decades ago.

“He’s one of Andrew’s favorite agents,” said a lawyer who’s worked with both men. Another attorney described Meisel as “one of the smartest, most street savvy, hardworking FBI agents I ever encountered.”

Other agents working on the Trump-Russia probe include Robert Gibbs, who’s worked Chinese espionage cases; Sherine Ebadi, who pursued a multimillion-dollar fraud at the U.S.’ biggest corporate jet maker; Jennifer Edwards, an accountant who handled internet crimes against children before joining the special counsel’s team; Jason Alberts, a public-corruption specialist who has handled high-profile cases involving the New York Police Department and the United Nations; and Brock Domin, a novice FBI agent with technology know-how, Russian language skills and experience on the ground in Moscow.

Mueller has remained mum about the FBI contingent supporting his work. His budget report released last December obscured any details on the bureau’s specific contribution. Mueller’s spokesperson won’t even give an overall number of FBI agents on the case, though Mueller’s office willingly confirmed the new attorney hires and the transfers from other Justice Department offices, putting the team of prosecutors on full-time duty at 16. The FBI declined requests to discuss its personnel working for Mueller or their backgrounds.

Two FBI employees — former bureau lawyer Lisa Page and agent Peter Strzok — wound up at the center of a scandal after the release of text messages exchanged between them rooting for Hillary Clinton to win in 2016. Strzok was removed from the Russia team. Page resigned from the bureau earlier this month.

Many of the FBI agents assigned to Mueller’s team have never been publicly identified, although some names have emerged in legal filings or been mentioned by prosecutors in court. Even in the case of those who have been mentioned, the public paper trail is often scant. Some have little or no evident social-media profile.

But members of Mueller’s FBI team have résumés as exotic and high-powered as the prosecutors who capture the limelight.

The agent overseeing the FBI’s squad attached to Mueller’s probe, David Archey, is a Duke Law School graduate who spent time in Rwanda studying the role children played in the genocide there. Archey was brought in to supervise the FBI team after Strzok was removed in 2017.

One of the most experienced members of Mueller’s FBI crew is Meisel, 46, who spent several years earlier this decade in a job involving more international intrigue: as the FBI’s legal attaché in Israel. That overseas experience could be of use in unraveling the complicated set of bank accounts and holding companies in places like Cyprus and the Grenadines that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is accused of using to launder proceeds from his international work. Manafort has pleaded not guilty and faces trial later this year.

Meisel has been in court for nearly every hearing in the Manafort case, sitting at the counsel table with his longtime associate Weissmann, as well as prosecutors Greg Andres and Kyle Freeny. Meisel also showed up in some widely viewed photos and video on Oct. 30, the day the indictment in the case was unsealed: greeting Manafort and his attorney Kevin Downing as the veteran political consultant arrived to be booked at the FBI’s field office in D.C., then driving him to court a few hours later to be arraigned.

There’s also corruption expert Alberts, 42, who was a political appointee of President George W. Bush in the Department of Interior’s solicitor’s office before signing up with the FBI about a decade ago and becoming a top corruption investigator in the bureau’s New York office.

Alberts’ interview style was captured in an April 2016 security-camera video recording posted online by the Daily News in March, though the paper did not note Alberts’ connection to the Mueller probe. The video, also obtained by POLITICO, shows Alberts questioning the leader of an Orthodox Jewish security patrol in New York City about his business “expediting” issuance of concealed-carry handgun permits.

Alberts used a “prisoner’s dilemma” technique on the suspect, Alex “Shaya” Lichtenstein, suggesting that an associate was talking at the same time elsewhere and implicating him. “If he tells us you gave him cash, you would say he’s lying?” Alberts said. “You’re not the only person that’s going down today. … This is part of a much bigger thing.”

In the video, Lichtenstein says he’s seen the Showtime TV show “Billions” and assumes it accurately portrays what it’s like to be an agent. Not so, Alberts replies. “What you see on TV is not what it’s like in real life. Promise you that,” Alberts says, suggesting the tough-guy approach is rarely useful for the FBI. “I wish that my experience at Quantico was like the one on TV. It’s not. … We’re talking about sophisticated crimes. We’re not talking about dealing with drug pushers and gangbangers. We’re talking about sophisticated people who may or may not have done something wrong.”

Lichtenstein pleaded guilty in 2016 and got a 32-month sentence, which he’s serving at a prison in Miami.

Mueller’s team also includes Domin, 37, a would-be filmmaker and college Russian major who left California and the movie business for a new career at the bureau just a few years ago.

Domin’s role in the case went public earlier this year when the FBI agent filed a pair of court declarations detailing how intercepted emails revealed Manafort’s involvement in editing an op-ed being drafted under the byline of former Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn. Manafort reportedly denied involvement in writing the op-ed, but Domin’s declarations demonstrated in great detail how Manafort and an aide the U.S. suspects of ties to Russian intelligence, Konstantin Kilimnik, corresponded about various proposed changes to the opinion piece.

Prosecutors used the op-ed episode to try to toughen bail requirements for Manafort. Judge Amy Berman Jackson declined to do that but scolded Manafort for seeking to evade a gag order she issued in the case.

Before Manafort was indicted, Domin also submitted a secret court declaration in a successful bid to force testimony from a lawyer who helped prepare what prosecutors say were false and misleading Foreign Agent Registration Act filings sent to the Justice Department.

Domin’s online biography says that before joining the FBI in 2015 he worked in film production for Warner Bros. and as a consultant for The Weinstein Co., the movie studio that went into bankruptcy earlier this year in the wake of rape and sexual assault allegations against founder Harvey Weinstein.

Despite the white-hot media spotlight, Mueller’s FBI squad continues to work in relative obscurity. Throughout much of the past year, each new prosecutor that reporters managed to identify unleashed a spate of news stories about his or her background, past cases and courtroom style.

On the more dramatic days, the FBI team gathers before dawn to swoop in and carry out search warrants, like the one used to raid Manafort’s luxury condo. They appear, often unexpectedly, to serve subpoenas demanding that witnesses appear before a Mueller-run grand jury. As another witness steps off a plane, they’re waiting to subject them to a carefully planned series of questions or even place the witness under arrest.

As another witness who lives abroad prepared to fly home from the U.S., the agents popped up at the gate unexpectedly. “It was like, ‘We have an eye on you. We know what you’re doing,’” she recalled. “That was the message I got.”

Working side-by-side with prosecutors, agents escort witnesses into Mueller’s secure Washington headquarters to be interrogated. “The two FBI agents were like Joe Friday, just the facts,” said another recent Mueller witness, who said an agent picked him up at a hotel a couple of blocks from Mueller’s office and whisked him in through a garage.

FBI agents do some of the witness interviews themselves, without Mueller’s prosecutors even in the room. Other sessions include both the special counsel’s team and the FBI, witnesses and their lawyers told POLITICO. The agents themselves are then ready to testify if someone is charged with lying to the FBI, as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and Trump campaign official Rick Gates have already have admitted to.

Having FBI agents on hand obviates the need for any prosecutor to testify about what was said, but in the current probe also serves a second purpose: providing someone who could testify even if Mueller’s whole prosecution team were removed and replaced.

Said one former federal prosecutor, who asked not to be named: “If anything happens to the special counsel, the bureau will still be there.”

Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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