In scrutinizing IG report on FBI, senators differ on what’s important

GOP focus on mistakes obtaining Carter Page warrant; Democrats highlight no FBI bias

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and his review of the FBI’s investigation into Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and his review of the FBI’s investigation into Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 11, 2019 at 3:50pm

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz told a Senate Committee on Wednesday that although the FBI’s counterintelligence probe of Donald Trump’s campaign was not motivated by political bias, the agency misled a surveillance court in seeking to obtain warrants for tracking a campaign surrogate.

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, remained divided along party lines in what they chose to focus on during Horowitz’s testimony, which came a day after his office released the 434-page report of its investigation.

Horowitz also testified that neither Attorney General William Barr nor U.S. Attorney John Durham who is pursuing a criminal investigation of the origins of the FBI probe offered any new information that would alter the conclusions of the inspector general’s findings.

Both Barr and Durham have said they disagreed with the inspector general’s report, but Horowitz told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, that the only disagreement he and Durham had was on the question of whether the FBI should have launched a preliminary investigation or a full probe. 

The FBI did launch a full counterintelligence probe trying to stop what they suspected was Russian help for the Trump campaign.

[DOJ watchdog finds problems not politics in Trump campaign probe]

As Horowitz’s report lays out, and as he reiterated in his testimony, all of the senior FBI officials that were involved in the decision to launch the Russia investigation agreed that the information they had warranted it.

The report states that “then Counterintelligence Division (CD) Assistant Director (AD) E.W. ‘Bill’ Priestap, who approved the case opening, told us that the combination of the [foreign friendly government] information and the FBI’s ongoing cyber intrusion investigation of the July 2016 hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) emails, created a counterintelligence concern that the FBI was ‘obligated’ to investigate.”

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Graham riding point for GOP

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chairman of the committee, focused on the FBI’s errors while Feinstein emphasized findings that the FBI was not politically motivated.

Graham said the main takeaway from the report shouldn’t be that the FBI acted lawfully in launching a probe of the Trump campaign.

“If that’s your take away that this thing was lawfully predicated, and that’s the main point, you missed the entire report,” Graham said in a lengthy opening statement.

News headlines that said so also showed bias against Trump, Graham said. “I can assure you that if this had been a Democratic president going through what President Trump had gone through, that would not have been the headline,” he said.

Instead the headlines would have said the FBI “took law into their own hands” and biased agents “cut corners and lied to courts.”

Trump, his congressional allies, and most of the Republican Party have said for more than two years that the FBI’s probe of the Trump campaign amounted to illegal spying. Trump also has alleged without any evidence that the Obama administration wiretapped his campaign.

The Inspector General’s office was asked to probe the origins of the FBI investigation. Separately, Barr also has asked Durham to conduct a so-called administrative review of the origins of the FBI probe but the Durham review has now morphed into a criminal investigation.

Investigation properly launched

Under questioning by Feinstein, Horowitz highlighted that after examining 1 million documents, conducting 170 interviews with more than 100 witnesses, the FBI probe code-named Crossfire Hurricane “was opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication.”

The investigation began in July 2016 after receiving a tip from an official of a “friendly foreign government” who had heard from Trump foreign policy official George Papadopoulos that the campaign had received an offer of help from Russia involving the anonymous release of information damaging to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

News reports have said the friendly foreign government official was an Australian diplomat who had heard about the Russian offer from Papadopoulos.

The investigation was authorized by Priestap after top FBI officials reached a consensus after several days of discussions, Horowitz said.

As part of the probe, the FBI monitored meetings with the agency’s confidential sources and Trump campaign officials after obtaining necessary agency approvals, Horowitz testified. Such monitoring did not violate any U.S. laws and the IG investigation found no evidence of “bias or improper motivation” in conducting these operations, Horowitz said. The FBI also did not attempt to place any agents within the Trump campaign or recruit anyone from the campaign, he said.

The IG, nevertheless, recommended that the FBI should have policies in place requiring that such high-level operations be notified to Justice Department lawyers.

The FISA warrants

The FBI also obtained a warrant from a secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA to monitor the communications of Carter Page, another Trump campaign adviser.  That warrant was based on information received from Christopher Steele, a former British spy turned consultant who had been working initially for a Republican rival to Trump, and then later on behalf of the Clinton campaign, regarding Page’s alleged dealings with Russian officials.

FBI officials proceeded with seeking the Page warrant despite being warned by a Justice Department lawyer that Steele was likely working for a political rival to Trump, the IG found.

The inspector general found that the FBI failed to be “scrupulously accurate” in obtaining a series of FISA warrants against Page, adding up to 17 significant inaccuracies in the process.

In response to the IG report, FBI Director Christopher Wray has said the agency would implement 40 changes in how it handles informants and applications for FISA warrants

In one case, the IG found, the FBI failed to tell the Justice Department that it had learned from one of Steele’s primary sub-sources in January 2017 “that raised significant questions about the reliability of Steele’s reporting” used to obtain warrants against Page. In another instance, the FBI failed to tell the secret court that Page had been a source for a U.S. intelligence agency between 2008 and 2013 and had provided the agency with information on his contacts with Russian sources.

Horowitz told Graham that the FBI had a duty to report such exculpatory information to the Justice Department lawyers and to the FISA court.

Horowitz also said that at the end of the Crossfire Hurricane probe the FBI found no evidence that Page collaborated with Russia.

While the IG report found that the Crossfire Hurricane counterintelligence investigation was launched based on a tip from the Australian official, and the ongoing cyber intrusions by Russians, Graham and other Republican lawmakers continued to tie the probe with errors made by the agency in its surveillance of Page.

Republicans also emphasized Steele’s alleged political bias against Trump, although the IG report mentioned that Steele had been friendly with the Trump family for more than a decade. ABC News reported Monday that Steele while he was still employed with the British spy agency had met and had dinner with Ivanka Trump in 2007. 

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