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Report on FBI Russia inquiry finds serious errors but debunks anti-Trump plot

By puncturing conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his allies, yet sharply criticizing law enforcement actions that have not been the subject of public debate, Horowitz’s mixed findings offered a basis for both critics and allies of Trump to claim vindication.

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: December 10, 2019 8:46:06 am
Michael Horowitz, inspector general at the Department of Justice in Washington, speaks at a House joint committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 18, 2018. (The New York Times: Tom Brenner)

Written by Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner

FBI officials had sufficient reason to open the investigation into links between Russia and Trump campaign aides in 2016 and acted without political bias, a long-awaited report said Monday, but it concluded that the inquiry was a rushed and dysfunctional process marked by serious errors in documents related to a wiretap.

The exhaustive report by the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, faced an immediate challenge. Attorney General William Barr sought to undermine the key finding that investigators had an adequate basis to open the inquiry, known as Crossfire Hurricane.

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a US presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr, a close ally of President Donald Trump who has begun his own re-investigation of the Russia inquiry, said in a statement.

Yet Horowitz stressed that the standard for opening an FBI investigation was low — echoing the sort of criticism that civil libertarians have made for years. He also exonerated former FBI leaders, broadly rejecting Trump’s accusations that they engaged in a politicized conspiracy to sabotage him.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced” officials’ decision to open the investigation, the report said.

At the same time, Horowitz’s report was scathing about other aspects of the sprawling inquiry, documenting serious and systematic problems with the FBI’s handling of applications to win court orders to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. Horowitz said investigators appeared to overstate the strength of their applications, and he separately referred one low-ranking FBI lawyer for possible prosecution for altering a related document.

By puncturing conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his allies, yet sharply criticizing law enforcement actions that have not been the subject of public debate, Horowitz’s mixed findings offered a basis for both critics and allies of Trump to claim vindication. The report by an independent official presented a definitive accounting of the FBI’s actions in the early stages of the Russia investigation.

Horowitz recommended reevaluating and tightening procedures and said his office had begun a broader audit of surveillance applications targeting Americans. In an 11-page response, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, said he was ordering 40 corrective steps to address the report’s recommendations.

The Horowitz report, as well as Barr’s criticism, is certain to extend the debate over the legitimacy of the FBI’s inquiry, which grew into the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller.

The report also rebuffed other conservative claims that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign as part of a politicized plot. It confirmed that the FBI opened the inquiry in July 2016 as stolen Democratic emails spilled out and investigators learned that a Trump campaign aide bragged that he had been told that Russia had information that could damage Hillary Clinton. Investigators did not open the inquiry based on a notorious dossier of opposition research from Christopher Steele, a former British spy whose research was funded by Democrats, Horowitz found.

Nor did the FBI send informants or undercover agents to meet with campaign officials before opening Crossfire Hurricane, place any informants inside the campaign or ask the informants it did rely on to “report on the Trump campaign,” as Trump’s allies have insinuated.

In comments after Horowitz’s report was made public, Trump nevertheless reprised his attacks on the Russia investigation as an attempted coup and a conspiracy. He claimed — in opposition to the report’s findings — that it showed “an attempted overthrow, and a lot of people were in on it and they got caught, they got caught red-handed.”

Barr praised Horowitz’s work but excoriated the FBI investigation, saying the bureau’s “malfeasance and misfeasance” detailed in the report reflected a “clear abuse” of the wiretap application process. Barr has publicly said he thinks the FBI subjected the Trump campaign to “spying,” and he tapped John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to lead yet another investigation into the Russia inquiry.

Shortly after the report was made public Monday, the Justice Department issued an extraordinary statement in Durham’s name objecting to the inspector general’s findings as well. Based on the evidence he has gathered, Durham said he had recently “advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”

Durham, a veteran of high-profile political investigations who is known for keeping quiet during his inquiries, did not specify any additional evidence he had uncovered that might credibly undermine Horowitz’s assessment that FBI officials met the standard in 2016 for opening an investigation.

“I look forward to the Durham report, which is coming out in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said. “It’s got its own information, which is this information plus plus plus.”

James Comey, the FBI director who oversaw the opening of the Russia investigation and whom Trump abruptly fired nearly a year later, lauded Horowitz’s findings and called on “those who attacked the FBI” to acknowledge they were wrong.

“The allegation of a criminal conspiracy was nonsense,” Comey, citing Horowitz’s findings, wrote in an op-ed article in The Washington Post. “There was no illegal wiretapping, there were no informants inserted into the campaign, there was no ‘spying’ on the Trump campaign.”

While Horowitz concluded that investigators followed existing rules in opening Crossfire Hurricane, he portrayed those rules as lax in permitting the bureau to take many key steps without higher-level approval from Justice Department officials.

For a full investigation, which permits wiretapping, FBI procedures require an “articulable factual basis” that “reasonably indicates” that a crime or national security threat exists. The bureau’s top counterintelligence agent, Bill Priestap, decided after deliberating with senior colleagues that the standard had been met, Horowitz found.

Though the report largely undercuts the president’s most inflammatory accusations, Trump’s persistent attacks have nonetheless damaged the bureau’s reputation. Top officials including Comey and Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director, were fired, while others left the bureau.

Much of the report focused on the documents associated with the wiretapping of Page. Despite the attention it has received, the wiretap was but a small piece of a sprawling FBI investigation into Russian election interference. Investigators obtained nearly 500 search warrants and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, according to the special counsel’s report.

The FISA court first approved the wiretap in October 2016, about a month after Page had stepped down from the Trump campaign. The Justice Department obtained three renewals of court permission to eavesdrop on Page — two under the Trump administration.

Given the highly fraught context of investigating someone linked to a presidential campaign, the report said, the Crossfire Hurricane investigators knew their work would be scrutinized — yet they nevertheless “failed to meet the basic obligation to ensure that the Carter Page FISA applications were ‘scrupulously accurate.’”

The findings on the wiretap application showed that when it mattered most — with the stakes the greatest and no room for error — FBI officials still made numerous and serious mistakes in wielding a powerful surveillance tool. Horowitz’s discovery calls into question the bureau’s surveillance practices in routine cases.

A chart in the report listed dozens of significant inaccuracies, omissions or assertions that investigators failed to back up in supporting documents in the four applications. To make the case that Page was probably a foreign agent, they relied on historical information about his contacts with Russians before 2016, and claims about his 2016 interactions with Russians that came from the Steele dossier.

Among the problems: The FBI never told the Justice Department, which thus never told the court that granted permission for the wiretaps, that Page had for years been providing information to the CIA about his prior contacts with Russian officials — including an encounter cited in the application as a reason to be suspicious of him. That might have made his history less suspicious.

The FBI’s omission of Page’s contacts with the CIA relates to the criminal referral that Horowitz made about an FBI lawyer assigned to assist the Russia investigation team. He found that the lawyer, whom people familiar with the inquiry have identified as Kevin Clinesmith, altered an email from the CIA to a colleague during a renewal application. (The report identified neither Clinesmith nor the CIA by name.)

An FBI official who had to sign an affidavit attesting to the accuracy and completeness of a court filing had specifically asked about any relationship with the CIA. Clinesmith altered the email so that it stated that Page was “not a source,” contributing to the Justice Department’s failure to discuss his relationship with the CIA in a renewal application.

Many of the problems Horowitz identified centered on the use of the Steele dossier, which his report portrayed as “essential” to establishing for the FISA court that investigators had probable cause to suspect that Page was an agent of a foreign power. The initial application relied on four claims from the dossier, and the credibility of each eroded over time.

Among other flaws uncovered by the inspector general, the FBI in January 2017 interviewed a primary source of Steele’s for important claims about Page. The source contradicted some of what Steele had written. But FBI officials said only that they found the source “truthful and cooperative,” leaving the false impression in renewal applications that his account had confirmed — rather than raised doubts about — the dossier’s reporting.

“The three Carter Page renewal applications contained a number of factual representations that were inaccurate, incomplete or unsupported by appropriate documentation, based upon information in the FBI’s possession at the time the applications were filed,” the report said.

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