Politics

Beneath the Politics, House GOP Quietly Touts Legitimate Oversight of FBI, DOJ

Judiciary and Oversight Committees’ probe of potential bias at DOJ, FBI has turned into political firestorm

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Rayburn Building on the Justice Department’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on Dec. 13, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The high-profile joint House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform probe into bias at the top echelons of the FBI and Department of Justice during 2016 has been marked by pitched partisanship that has distracted from the substance of lawmakers’ oversight goals — at least publicly.

Some of the quieter GOP voices on the panel believe they can tout legitimate pieces of oversight success despite that partisan cloud.

Take, for instance, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins' discovery that the FBI very loosely applied its own security clearance standards from 2015 through 2018 as it investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State and the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia.

Former FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok twice retained access to top-level information long after he should have been “read out” of the programs because he either had an “out of scope” polygraph test or had been taken off an investigative assignment. That’s based on Roll Call’s review of materials and congressional testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Strzok in response to questioning from Collins over roughly the last year.

Watch: Jim Jordan and Rod Rosenstein’s Fiery Exchange

Strzok was fired in August after the DOJ’s inspector general discovered anti-Trump texts between him and DOJ lawyer Lisa Page, sent during an alleged affair.

From October 2015 through February 2016, while he headed the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Strzok and a handful of other officials had expired counterintelligence polygraph tests. 

They were notified that their polygraph tests were out of scope — meaning they had either failed them or their tests were expired — and they quickly completed new ones. But Strzok’s access to high-level Sensitive Compartmented Information, or SCI — which is segregated to reduce the potential scope of a security breach — was never suspended.

FBI officials must pass a new polygraph test every five years in order to retain access to certain levels of classified government information, including SCI.

Such sensitive material is “compartmented” so that officials who are working on specific investigations have access only to top-level information relevant to those investigations. That way, very few people at the various U.S. intelligence agencies have access to the whole trove of top-secret intelligence information. (In theory, if there is a security breach, only some “compartments” of SCI would be compromised.)

If officials have not taken and passed a polygraph test within the last five years, the bureau is supposed to suspend their access to SCI until the officials have completed a new polygraph test.

From October 2015 to February 2016, that never happened for Strzok.

For access to SCI compartments, intelligence officials must also meet a second criterion: a “need to know” requirement. That means even if they have cleared all the security hurdles necessary, officials will still be denied access to certain SCI compartments unless they are actively working on cases that require that information.

The FBI again appeared to skirt its own security regulations when it failed to “read out” Strzok from SCI until roughly eight months after Strzok had been removed from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into potential links between Russia and Trump’s inner circle, Collins learned.

Strzok was removed from the special counsel’s team on “approximately July 27,” Rosenstein said at a Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 13, 2017.

“The fact that he was no longer on the case was known” at the time, Rosenstein said, though “the reasons were not.”

Strzok was removed after Mueller learned of his anti-Trump texts, officials later learned.

But he was not read out of his SCI access until April 2018, nearly nine months after he was taken off his investigations and moved to a position in the FBI’s Human Resources department, a Republican aide with knowledge of the oversight effort told Roll Call.

A spokesperson for the FBI could not be reached by the publication time of this story.

Public perception of the joint Judiciary and Oversight investigation has been tarnished by leaks — followed by repudiations from indignant Democrats accusing conservatives of plucking interviewees’ quotes out of context.

Some witnesses appear to have lost trust in the panel’s investigative integrity, too. One, Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson, invoked the Fifth Amendment when served with a subpoena and refused to appear before the panel. A second, former FBI Director James B. Comey, took the remarkable step of requesting a public hearing instead of a private one. And another, Rosenstein, has been negotiating with House Republicans for nearly a month on an acceptable forum to answer lawmakers’ questions.

So far the lawmakers have interviewed 16 key witnesses, including numerous senior FBI and DOJ officials, per a Republican Oversight Committee aide. The joint panel and its staff have obtained nearly 30,000 pages of documents, reviewed over 880,000 pages of documents in closed settings, received over 40,000 text messages between subjects of the investigation, and reviewed two current or former employees’ Office of Professional Responsibility files.

“The documents we have obtained, the witnesses we have interviewed, and the information we have uncovered will go a long way in advancing serious oversight initiatives with an agency that has — at times — been resistant to such efforts,” the Oversight aide said in a statement.

Still, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte and Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy have been tight-lipped about any specific findings of the investigation, frustrating some of the panel’s more conservative members.

A GOP House Judiciary aide, in a statement Tuesday, would say only that the investigation has revealed “vast differences” in how the Clinton email and Trump-Russia investigations were handled.

The aide declined to provide evidence to support that claim, citing the “ongoing” nature of the investigation.

“At the appropriate time, the Committees will provide key findings from [their] investigation,” the aide said.

Democratic leaders have long dismissed the probe as a sham investigation meant to provide political cover to President Donald Trump by undermining the institutions and people at the Justice Department, including the special counsel, investigating members of his 2016 campaign team.

The president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and two other campaign aides have pleaded or been found guilty of crimes as a result of the special counsel’s investigation. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, also pleaded guilty after Mueller’s team referred his case to prosecutors in New York.

“They are conducting a so-called investigation that’s just designed to undermine the Mueller investigation, that’s designed to sabotage it,” New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told Roll Call earlier this month of his GOP colleagues.

Oversight ranking member Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland has called the panel’s Republicans “the president’s personal defense counsel.”

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