FBI Special Agent in Charge Frank Montoya Jr. spent more than 25 years in the FBI, retiring in September 2016.
During his time in the FBI, he filled a variety of roles. He served as a special agent, senior chief, and unit chief for the Counterintelligence Division at FBI Headquarters; he was detailed to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; and he was the special agent in charge for both the Hawaii and Seattle field offices.
Montoya knows former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and FBI Agent Peter Strzok. He doesn't just know them because he saw them at the office, though. He has worked with them, hand in hand, on tasks and missions applicable to the FBI's purpose. In addition, his experience with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act makes him a knowledgeable source on the issue.
Amid the release of a memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) and the controversy that exploded over it, Independent Journal Review asked Montoya about it.
How did he react when the memo was released?
“When you read it, especially from my perspective, it is much ado about nothing,” Montoya said. “I've done hundreds, if not thousands, of these investigations, and all the memo does is make accusations about an investigative process. If there was an FBI conspiracy against Trump, it would have announced the Russia investigation before the election. But it didn't. That's because there is no conspiracy. That's now how you uphold the rule of law.”
Montoya expanded on what he means.
“The accusations are about the nature of the source. We get source information from all kinds of places,” he said. “We even get anonymous mail that arrives at the field office. The information is what matters.”
The former FBI official brought up Carter Page, the individual at the center of the memo.
“Regardless of what one might think of [former British intelligence agent Christopher] Steele or the dossier, if you look at the dossier, there is specific information that Carter Page talked to Russian officials in a time period in 2016,” Montoya said. “He's acknowledged doing that. That's an indication the investigation against him was valid.”
We asked him about what Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said about the dossier having “salacious and unverified claims.”
“Even if the salacious and unverified parts of the dossier are never proven, that's fine,” Montoya said. “What was used in the FISA application was what was verified. It gets extended every 90 days. They had to keep developing information to keep things rolling forward.”
During his time in the FBI, Montoya testified in front of Nunes. He shared a couple of concerns he has over the chairman's approach to the key issues.
“I've testified in front of [former Rep.] Mike Rogers and Nunes,” he said. “When Rogers left, things didn’t operate at the nonpartisan level they did before.”
We asked Montoya what led him to have that perception about the current House Intelligence Committee chairman.
“Rogers was a former agent. He worked closely with the minority leader. He engaged constantly with the [U.S. intelligence community], and not just in hearings,” he said. “He understood us. No, he didn't cut us any slack as chairman, but he was knowledgeable and fair.”
When Nunes took over, things changed, according to Montoya's account.
“My first impression of him was that he is an empty suit. I say this because he wasn’t objective and failed to do his homework,” he said. “He takes shortcuts on everything. He didn't do his homework here, either. He admitted that he did not read the FISA applications.”
Returning to the FISA memo, Montoya continued: “The memo doesn't say the information was false. The concerns are all about whether it was biased or omitted relevant or material information. As far as the motivation of the source, in a probable cause affidavit, it is not important as the quality of the information he or she is providing.”
He explained that quality is determined by “past reliability of a source, other corroborating information.”
“For example, if the source says the subject went to Russia in a certain time period, an investigator can check travel records, phone records, talk to other sources to determine if that travel occurred. The other thing about the dossier is that it's not just one document, but a series of them. They were written and released between June of 2016 and December of 2016. It addresses a bunch of different things,” he said.
In addition, Montoya said that not having an affidavit to view means you have to trust the integrity of the memo as fact completely.
"So we don't have the affidavit to look at, either. You have to take their word on whether they are telling the truth," he said. "This is key given reporting from last night that the memo mischaracterized what [former FBI Deputy Director Andrew] McCabe said before the House Intel Committee about not getting the FISA warrant without the dossier.
“And reporting that the Yahoo News article was not/not used to confirm Steele's reporting in the dossier. And the reporting that the FISA affidavit (we also call it an application) did note that the dossier was sponsored by a 'political entity.' That pretty much shoots the central tenant of the memo [that the judge was misled] right in the butt.”
He said Steele could have lied to the FBI, but that doesn't matter.
The reason all comes back to the documented fact that Page was talking to Russian officials. Further, it's up to a judge to determine if the sponsorship of the dossier is a material fact.
“But that is not a decision that usually affects an application for a FISA warrant,” Montoya said. “Source motivation can be a factor in prosecution. But a FISA warrant is not a prosecution.”
He broke down what a FISA warrant is, how difficult it is to get, and how it does not have to be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“It is an investigative technique. Probable cause is the standard, not beyond a reasonable doubt,” Montoya said. "In the event that the information wasn't disclosed for the FISA warrant, the [FBI and Justice Department\ could have hell to pay. But every assertion in an application is backed up by documentation. It is a requirement of the approval process and thoroughly vetted through layers of approval authority. No, it's not easy to get a FISA warrant approved.
“There is a thing called the Woods Procedure in the application process,” he continued. “If I make any assertions in a FISA application, I have to have documentation to support it. If I say a foreign entity is acting on behalf of a foreign government in furtherance of a clandestine intelligence activity, I have to cite information to say why that is. It is typically a continuum of information and can include public information, including a document like a dossier, or a human source report. Things I collected clandestinely or overtly.”
However, according to Montoya, you always need more than one piece of information.
“One piece of information is never enough,” he said. “It can include information that is based on historical knowledge. It's all about pieces being put together to show there is probable cause. As I noted before, it is about establishing probable cause or reason to believe. It doesn't have to be beyond a reasonable doubt, that's a trial standard.”
The interview came back to Page and Moscow.
“In the Page FISA, what is relevant is, judging from the memo, investigators can show Page was in the Moscow meeting we covered earlier. That validates information in the dossier about such a meeting,” Montoya said.
He continued to touch on Page: "This isn't the first time Page has come on the screen as a target in Russia. A 2013 investigation led to the arrest of Russian officials, Page was in the middle of that investigation. From my perspective as a [counterintelligence] investigator, he has already played with fire.
“That said, the question about him meeting with Russian officials is not necessarily that he met with them, but what did he talk to them about? The purpose of FISA coverage, as an investigative tool, is to try and determine that, to develop evidence of a crime or not. That's why we use it,” he explained.
“Investigations are classified to protect sources and methods, but also to protect those who have not committed a crime. If an allegation is proven false, the last thing we want to do is destroy someone's reputation or standing.”
IJR then asked Montoya what he thinks about those who are upset over the claim that the FBI helped a political candidate do opposition research.
“A political candidate did not use opposition research to help justify aiming the FBI at an opponent,” he responded. "To the point, it is silly to think that 'opposition' research is unusable simply because it is opposition research. What matters is its veracity, not where it came from.
“If sourcing was paramount, we wouldn't be able to talk to criminals to solve crimes,” Montoya continued. "We wouldn't be able to make deals with crooked politicians to ferret out corruption committed by other politicians. We wouldn't be able to talk to foreign intelligence officers to determine if Americans are betraying our country. Fact is, we're wise enough about sources to verify, validate, corroborate what they say before we use it in a legal proceeding, whether it's a warrant, or at trial.
“Yep, sometimes we get fooled. But we also make a lot of cases on account of source information. In fact, no espionage case has ever been made without source info. Bottom line: It is why we do investigations, to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
Lastly, with all the heat on McCabe and Comey, IJR wanted to know if Montoya ever questioned their integrity or impartiality during his time in the FBI.
“Never," he said. "I disagreed with [McCabe] on a lot of issues. But never doubted his integrity or impartiality. [Comey] was one of the finest men I've ever had the privilege of knowing,” he said. “He lived up to the hype. He was principled, a man of integrity, and extremely well-regarded in the FBI. But he was also humble and willing to listen.”
Montoya then offered his take on Comey in relation to the Hillary Clinton email investigation and his short relationship with President Donald Trump.
“All of his actions — including those following the Clinton email investigation and his interactions with Trump — were guided by the determination to protect the FBI's independence,” he said, “specifically to deal with the kinds of crisis we face today, strict adherence to the rule of law, and protecting American civil liberties at all costs.”
IJR conducted two interviews with Montoya, one over the phone and another over email.
Correction: IJR originally reported that Nunes, who has sat on the House Intelligence Committee since 2011, was the chairman when Montoya Jr. testified in front of him. After further conversation with the senior FBI official, we discovered that Nunes was not yet chairman. While he did testify in front of Nunes on multiple occasions, it was not while he was the head of the committee. Montoya Jr. left the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in May 2014. Nunes became committee chairman in 2015.
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