FBI outlines surveillance reforms after searing rebuke from court, DOJ inspector general

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
FBI outlines surveillance reforms after searing rebuke from court, DOJ inspector general

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray outlined a series of proposed reforms Friday aimed at bolstering public confidence in sensitive surveillance operations in wake of a damning report that revealed flaws in how the bureau handled wiretap applications for a former Trump campaign aide.  

In a filing ordered by the chief judge of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Wray pledged that the bureau would overhaul its training program for agents and lawyers to ensure that information used to support future surveillance applications is complete and properly vetted.

The plan comes more than a month after the Justice Department's inspector general identified 17 inaccuracies in requests to wiretap former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. The surveillance of Page, whom the FBI believed was conspiring with the Russian government, was conducted as the FBI investigated Russia's efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

"The FBI has the utmost respect for this court, and deeply regrets the errors and omissions identified by the (inspector general)," Wray wrote, adding that the Justice watchdog's report described "conduct that is unacceptable and unrepresentative of the FBI as an institution."

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Wray described the surveillance authority provided by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is approved by the court, as "an indispensable tool in national security investigations."

"In recognition of our duty of candor to the court and our responsibilities to the American people, the FBI is committed to working with the court and (Justice Department) to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the FISA process," Wray wrote.

The centerpiece of the training regimen, as outlined in the FBI filing, is the proposed creation of a "case study" based on the inspector general's findings in the Page surveillance applications. Wray ordered that the training program be created by April 30 and is requiring that all agents and lawyers who staff FISA complete the training by June 30.

"I am determined that operational personnel understand, holistically, what occurred during the activities reflected in the (inspector general's) report, and that, in addition, personnel working on FISA applications understand the importance of rigor during each and every phase of the application process," the director wrote. 

After the inspector general's report was released, Judge Rosemary Collyer, chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that considers the sensitive wiretap applications, rebuked the FBI and asserted it had misled the court when seeking permission to wiretap Page.

"The frequency with which representations made by FBI personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable," Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote. 

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In its filing, the FBI was required to show the court how it would adhere to the rules governing requests for surveillance allowed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law, enacted in 1978, outlines procedures investigators must follow when they ask judges for permission to conduct electronic surveillance of people suspected of acting as foreign agents.

Although the inspector general debunked claims by President Donald Trump that the Russia investigation was motivated by political bias, it revealed a dysfunctional system in which a team of investigators, handpicked to conduct one of the FBI's most sensitive investigations, committed "basic and fundamental errors." 

The FBI sought four court-ordered wiretaps of Page. Each application contained multiple errors, according to Inspector General Michael Howoritz's report. 

Among the most common were omissions of important information, including some that contradicted investigators' suspicions that Page was acting as a foreign agent.

During Senate testimony last month, Horowitz said the surveillance of Page continued even as investigators gathered new evidence "that weakened the assessment" of Page's activities.. 

Carter Page at a news conference in Moscow on Dec. 12, 2016.

Horowitz's report concluded that investigators overstated the reliability of a former British intelligence officer whose information they used to justify the surveillance warrants. Agents described Christopher Steele as someone whose information had been "corroborated and used in criminal proceedings." Horowitz's report said that wasn't true.

Investigators also didn't provide documentation to back up some of their assertions to justify the wiretap warrants. In some cases, the documents showed their claims were wrong. One supervisor said he didn't necessarily review full documents to make sure they supported what the agents claimed, according to the report.

Horowitz referred a former FBI attorney to prosecutors for possible criminal investigation for altering an email from a liaison at another government agency. The email confirmed Page had been a source of information for the other agency, but the FBI attorney changed it to say the opposite.

That covered up a piece of information that would have undercut the FBI's justification to wiretap Page.

This, Collyer wrote in her order, "gave rise to serious concerns about the accuracy and completeness" of any surveillance warrant applications involving that attorney. 

DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz's report examines the FBI's Russia probe and its surveillance of former Donald Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Contributing: Kristine Phillips

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FBI Director Christopher Wray outlines surveillance reforms