FBI wiretap of Trump campaign aide was riddled with errors, but Russia probe was legally justified, IG report finds

Kevin Johnson and Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's internal watchdog found the controversial surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser was riddled with errors, raising questions about its justification.

The voluminous report, released Monday by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, identified 17 separate inaccuracies across three surveillance applications, effectively inflating the justification for monitoring former foreign policy adviser Carter Page starting in the fall of 2016.

Horowitz, however, concluded the FBI was legally justified in launching its inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. There was no "documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to conduct these operations," the report said. 

The 400-page report debunks claims by the president and his allies that political bias played a role in the FBI's decision to investigate members of the Trump campaign for possible coordination with Russia. The inspector general said there was "no evidence" the FBI placed any undercover sources or agents in the Trump campaign or had them attend campaign events.

The criticism of the FBI’s surveillance activities, however, is central to the report’s findings and is likely to fuel new attacks from President Donald Trump and a cadre of Republican allies. Horowitz also singled out a Justice Department official for possible criminal investigation.

Horowitz launched his review in March 2018 in response to requests from Republican lawmakers and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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The review examined the FBI's decision to investigate four Trump associates and campaign aides: Page, former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Papadopoulos caught the attention of the FBI after he boasted to an Australian diplomat that Russia had offered political dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The diplomat alerted the FBI.

Page had longstanding ties to Russia and admitted meeting with Kremlin officials on a July 2016 trip to Moscow. Manafort and Flynn also have ties to Russia and traveled there.

The inspector general also examined the FBI's relationship with Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who was hired by a research firm working for Clinton's campaign. Steele authored a now-infamous "dossier" alleging ties between Trump and Russia.

Errors with requests to wiretap Page

Throughout the report, the inspector general raised questions about the management of the high-profile, politically charged investigation. "So many basic and fundamental errors" were made by investigative teams handpicked to conduct one of the FBI's most sensitive investigations, the report said.

"We believe this circumstance reflects a failure not just by those who prepared (applications for wiretap warrants) but also by the managers and supervisors in the chain of command, including FBI senior officials who were briefed as the investigation progressed," the report said. 

How we got here: The events that led to the inspector general's report on the origins of the Russia probe

Among the most common errors in the wiretap applications for Page were the omission of important information, including some that contradicted investigators' suspicions. For example, the FBI didn't note Page's denial that he had been involved in revising a part of the Republican platform to be more favorable to Russia.

In other cases, inaccurate information was included. At one point, the significance of Steele's prior cooperation with U.S. authorities was “overstated.” The FBI didn't corroborate Steele's account of Page's dealings with Russians, but still used it in its preparation of the surveillance applications. 

The decision to rely on Steele’s reporting "to help establish that Page was an agent of Russia" was supported by “FBI officials at every level," the report said. 

The inspector general found “no evidence” that FBI officials raised any concerns about the reliability of Steele's information with top officials, including then-FBI Director James Comey or Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. 

Because the bureau's top leadership was not notified, the report said, they "authorized the FBI to seek to use this highly intrusive investigative technique targeting Carter Page based on significant omissions and inaccurate information in the initial and renewal FISA applications.”

Horowitz singled out Bruce Ohr, an FBI lawyer and associate deputy attorney general, for additional review and possible criminal investigation. The inspector general sharply criticized Ohr for his relationship with Steele and for failing to inform his Justice supervisors of those contacts.

In a written response, FBI Director Christopher Wray characterized the report as “constructive criticism that will make us stronger as an organization.”

“We are vested with significant authorities and it is our obligation as public servants to ensure these authorities are exercised with objectivity and integrity,” Wray said. “Anything less falls short of the FBI’s duty to the American people.”

Barr disagrees with IG's findings

Attorney General William Barr disagreed with Horowitz's overall finding that the FBI's investigation was justified.

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said.

Barr is overseeing a parallel criminal investigation into the origins of the Russia probe.  

John Durham, whom Barr tapped to lead the parallel investigation, also refuted the inspector general's conclusion. 

"Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report's conclusions as to the predication and how the FBI case was opened," Durham said in a statement.

Democrats on Capitol Hill said the report debunks conspiracy theories fanned by Trump and Republicans about how the Russia investigation began.

"Those discredited conspiracy theories were attempts to deflect from the President's serious and ongoing misconduct, first urging Russia and now extorting Ukraine into interfering with our elections to benefit him personally and politically," said Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, Democrats representing New York and co-chairs of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees.

The report comes as Democrats are drawing up articles of impeachment against Trump over allegations that he sought to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations that would help Trump politically. 

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, decried the FBI's "spying" on four Americans. "This is a grave matter that should deeply trouble Americans of all political stripes," he said.

Political bias did not play a role in Russia probe

Despite his criticism, Horowitz's investigation found that the FBI's decision to investigate Page, Papadopoulos, Flynn and Manafort was properly authorized and followed Justice Department policies. 

In determining whether bias played a role in the decision to launch the Russia probe, the inspector general examined text messages exchanged by Peter Strzok, a former FBI counterintelligence agent assigned to the investigation, and Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer. 

Horowitz determined that the messages, which were hostile toward Trump, "created an appearance of bias" and "raised serious questions" about the validity of decisions involving the two.

But Horowitz noted that Page did not play a role in the decision to investigate Trump's campaign aides. Although Strzok was involved, "he was not the sole, or even the highest level decision maker," the report said. 

"Witnesses told us that they did not recall observing during these discussions any instances or indications of improper motivations or political bias on the part of the participants, including Strzok," the report said. 

Strzok's attorney, Aitan Goelman, said in a statement that the report confirms that Strzok's "personal opinions never impacted his work as an official of the FBI."

FISA report: Dueling investigations? Days before inspector general's report on FBI's Russia investigation, Trump promotes AG probe

Special Counsel Robert Mueller took over the FBI's investigation in May 2017 and indicted three dozen individuals and entities, including six former Trump associates and campaign aides – all of whom have either pleaded guilty or have been convicted by a jury. Page was never indicted as part of the Russia probe. 

Mueller's two-year investigation found a “sweeping and systematic" effort by the Russian government to intercede in the election to help Trump win, but concluded neither the president nor his campaign conspired with Russians, according to the special counsel’s report released in April. The report, however, portrayed the campaign as an eager beneficiary of Russian efforts.  

This story will be updated.

Contributing: Kevin McCoy, Donovan Slack, Deirdre Shesgreen, Tom Vanden Brook

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: IG report finds errors in FBI's surveillance of former Trump adviser