The Justice Department’s inspector general found that the FBI properly opened its investigation into Russian election interference but said there were major errors in how the agency conducted the probe.
The report released Monday by inspector general Michael Horowitz did not find “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” to open investigations that initially focused on campaign advisers Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
While rebutting President Donald Trump’s claims that the FBI illegally spied on his campaign, Horowitz’s 435-page report criticized the FBI leaders and employees for how they handled four applications for surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act targeting Page.
Horowitz opened the probe early last year, and his office has reviewed more than 1 million records and conducted more than 100 interviews as part of its review, including a number of current and former law enforcement officials at the center of “deep state” conspiracies.
But Attorney General William Barr disputed Horowitz’s finding that the FBI properly opened a full investigation, called Crossfire Hurricane, based on the evidence it had in July 2016.
“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 said in a statement Monday. “It is also clear that, from its inception the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory.”
The report details 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the four Page FISA applications, but the inspector general’s report doesn’t support Barr’s suggestion that the entire investigation lacked merit.
Horowitz said his report only examined the opening of the investigation and the Page surveillance along with the use of confidential human sources.
Horowitz found that the FBI followed existing rules, but Horowitz recommended that changes be made, including that the FBI consult top Justice officials before more intrusive investigative steps are taken in investigations dealing with major political campaigns.
The report is certain to be weaponized by Republicans who have been battling back weeks of bad headlines about the President’s pressure campaign against the Ukrainians and an ongoing impeachment inquiry.
“I.G. report out tomorrow. That will be the big story!” Trump tweeted Sunday.
How the FBI probe started
Horowitz’s investigation centered on a series of warrants that the FBI filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as they sought to investigate Page, a one-time foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.
The warrants were signed by top Justice Department officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, and stated that the FBI believed that Page “has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government,” according to redacted copies released last year.
To bolster their request to the surveillance court, the FBI relied at times on claims about the Trump campaign collected in a dossier of unverified intelligence reports by former British spy Christopher Steele.
The FBI wrote in the applications that Steele had a history of providing reliable information to the FBI and that they believed that the reporting of his that they cited was “credible.” But FBI investigators noted in later iterations of the warrant that they had severed their relationship with Steele because he shared some of his findings with news organizations.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee who released findings on a study of the FISA warrants have accused the FBI of improperly withholding information from the surveillance court about Steele’s political beliefs, as well as the fact that his work was backed financially at one point by the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Horowitz’s office interviewed Steele as part of its investigation.
Horowitz, who took office in 2012 after an appointment from President Barack Obama, has built a reputation as a thorough investigator who has the ability to rankle Democrats and Republicans alike.
His office’s blockbuster report into the FBI’s handling of the investigations of Hillary Clinton, released in 2018, excoriated Comey for “extraordinary and insubordinate” moves that, along with the revelation of Strzok and Pages text messages, did lasting damage to the FBI’s reputation, although ultimately concluded that their actions were not motivated by political bias.
Horowitz also released a report in August finding that Comey violated FBI policies when he retained and leaked a set of memos he took documenting meetings with Trump in 2017.
The inspector general is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The report will accuse a former FBI lawyer of altering a document related to the Page surveillance, CNN reported last month. That lawyer is under criminal investigation and his alleged conduct is part of Durham’s review.
While it’s unclear how significant a role the altered document played in the FBI’s investigation of Page, Horowitz did not determine that it undermined the overall validity of the surveillance, sources said.
The report concluded that officials at the FBI had enough information to properly launch the investigation in 2016, and dispel the claim that US intelligence agencies tried to plant spies in the Trump campaign.
Trump has boosted that narrative without evidence for months and popularized the term “Spy-gate.” The conspiracy is a frequent topic in the conservative media and often revolves around Joseph Mifsud, a secretive Maltese professor who played a role in the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation.
Mifsud had interactions with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to the FBI.
US intelligence agencies were said to have told Horowitz that Misfud was not an asset for Western intelligence agencies, which is a claim spread by Papadopoulos and other conservative figures.
Horowitz’s report is also expected to discuss the specific roles of a number of controversial FBI officials involved in the early days of the Russia probe, including Peter Strzok, a former senior counterintelligence officer, Lisa Page, an attorney, Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director, and Comey, the former director, who have since left the law enforcement agency under a pall.
Strzok, who had an extramarital affair with Page and exchanged anti-Trump messages with her on an FBI phone, was fired, as was McCabe, who had been accused of lying about contacts with a reporter in a separate investigation by Horowitz’s office. Both men have sued the agency in relation to their departures.
McCabe is now a CNN contributor.
More to come
The report will not be the final word on the Russia investigation’s legitimacy, and Trump has already foreshadowed a separate investigation being conducted out of the Justice Department by veteran prosecutor John Durham.
That probe was launched earlier this year by Attorney General William Barr, a longtime skeptic of the Russia probe. People familiar with Barr’s thinking have told CNN that despite the conclusions in the Horowitz report, Barr still has questions about some of the intelligence and other information the FBI used to pursue the Russia investigation, and he has been telling allies to wait for Durham, who he thinks will provide a more complete accounting.
By David Shortell and Evan Perez, CNN