- Special counsel’s on Russia probe loses top FBI investigator
Two American F-15 fighter jets roar down the runway, afterburners glowing, for a near vertical lift-off that pierces through an opening in the clouds.
Moments later, two Romanian MiG-21s follow them for a simulated dogfight over the hilly landscape of Transylvania.
Amid ongoing tensions with Russia, this training session in the former Communist corner of Southeast Europe is part of a wider U.S. military program — Operation Atlantic Resolve — that presents a show of force to potential foes.
“Two of those guys versus two of us came to a merge and there was fighting from there,” said Maj. John. M., one of the F-15 pilots. (The U.S. Air Force asks reporters not to publish his full name for security reasons).
In addition to the diplomatic standoff between the United States and Russia, concerns have been growing over a massive military exercise planned by Moscow over the next month. With thousands of Russian troops involved, Zapad 2017 could become the country’s largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War.
With American bases drastically reduced across Europe in recent decades, temporary deployments such as the 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron’s currently stationing at Campia Turzii, Romania, are a way to show both allies and potential enemies that the U.S. military is still active in the region.
“Operation Atlantic Resolve is our steadfast commitment to support our NATO allies in regional and collective security,” explains Lt. Col. George Downs, the squadron’s commander.
The program has already seen the return of A-10 Thunderbolt II “tankbuster” aircraft to Europe after military officials decided in 2015 that threats from Russia, ISIS, and others throughout Europe and North Africa demanded a renewed presence.
The 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron’s roughly 300 airmen and 12 F-15C Eagle fighter jets from the Louisiana and Florida Air National Guards have been running training missions across Europe this summer.
The squadron has taken over part of a hangar at the airfield and set up tents to support the mission, just as they would in a wartime deployment.
“We’re training with our Romanian allies so that we’re better integrated with them in case of future conflict,” Downs says.
In the meantime, one of the FBI’s top investigators, tapped by special counsel Robert Mueller just weeks ago to help lead the probe of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election, has left Mueller’s team, sources tell ABC News.
The recent departure of FBI veteran Peter Strzok is the first known hitch in a secretive probe that by all public accounts is charging full-steam ahead. Just last week, news surfaced that Mueller’s team had executed a search warrant at the Virginia home of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. And the week before that ABC News confirmed Mueller is now using a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., to collect documents and other evidence.
It’s unclear why Strzok stepped away from Mueller’s team of nearly two dozen lawyers, investigators and administrative staff. Strzok, who has spent much of his law enforcement career working counterintelligence cases and has been unanimously praised by government officials who spoke with ABC News, is now working for the FBI’s human resources division.
He is no stranger to complex and controversial investigations.
As chief of the FBI’s counterespionage section last year, he helped oversee the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, and he took part in the FBI interview of the Democratic presidential candidate.
Within weeks of the Clinton probe ending, Strzok found his office facing a new challenge: investigating Russia’s alleged efforts to influence last year’s presidential election, including a cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee.
A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
NBC with additional report from Abc