Two of the most senior intelligence officials in the US and UK privately shared concerns about “our strange situation” as the FBI launched its 2016 investigation into whether Donald Trump’s campaign was colluding with Russia, the Guardian has learned.
Text messages between Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI at the time, and Jeremy Fleming, his then counterpart at MI5, now the head of GCHQ, also reveal their mutual surprise at the result of the EU referendum, which some US officials regarded as a “wake-up call”, according to a person familiar with the matter.
While Russia had previously been viewed as a country that would seek to interfere in western elections, the Brexit vote was viewed by some within the FBI as a sign that Russian activities had possibly been successful, the person said.
Their exchanges offer new insights into the start of the FBI’s Russia investigation, and how British intelligence appears to have played a key role in the early stages.
In one exchange in August 2016, Fleming noted that members of the FBI and MI5 had “met on our strange situation”, a veiled reference to discussions about Russian activities, according to the source.
The exchanges underscore a sensitive issue in the US – namely the role foreign intelligence services played in the FBI’s decision to initiate an investigation into the Trump campaign.
In his text message about the August 2016 meeting, Fleming appeared to be making a reference to Peter Strzok, a senior FBI official who travelled to London that month to meet the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. Downer had agreed to speak with the FBI about a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, who had told him that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee in the race. The meeting was first reported by the New York Times.
When Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary at the time, was asked in November 2017 whether Russia had played any role in British elections, he told MPs in a select committee that he had not seen any evidence of such an occurrence.
Strzok and almost every senior FBI official who was involved in the initial Trump investigation has since left the FBI, including McCabe. ... Fleming was elevated to head GCHQ in 2017.
During his period as a senior official at MI5, Fleming served as director for intelligence collection and led MI5’s preparations for the 2012 Olympics. He was appointed deputy director of MI5 in 2013.