WASHINGTON — While clearing the FBI of political bias in opening an investigation into then candidate Donald Trump, a Justice Department inspector general report hands powerful new ammunition to the president’s allies, sharply criticizing the bureau for “serious performance errors” and “significant” errors and omissions in its applications for a secret surveillance warrant targeting a member of Trump’s campaign.
The long awaited 434-page report finds that FBI’s team conducting Crossfire Hurricane— the code name for the bureau’s investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin — improperly relied too heavily on allegations made by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who had been hired by an opposition research firm working for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The bureau did so in four applications for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant despite being informed by some of its own agents that many of Steele’s claims could not be verified, that at least one of his key sources had dubious credibility and that some of his most controversial allegations — for example, that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had flown to Prague to meet with Russian operatives — “were not true.”
The report focuses on only one part of Crossfire Hurricane: the FBI’s applications for a FISA warrant on Carter Page, a New York businessman who was named as a member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisory team in March 2016. After initially receiving a warrant to secretly wiretap Page’s phone and monitor all his communications in October 2016 on the grounds that there was “probable cause” he was an agent of the Kremlin, the FBI got three additional renewals for that warrant from a federal court while withholding substantial evidence that would have undercut some of the allegations it was telling the judges that needed to be investigated.
“We further determined that the Crossfire Hurricane team was unable to corroborate any of the specific substantive allegations regarding Carter Page contained in Steele’s election reporting, which the FBI relied on in the FISA applications,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz writes in his report.
The report is likely to provide new fodder for all sides in the controversy over the FBI investigation into Trump’s links to the Kremlin and could well influence the debate in Congress over whether to impeach the president over his Ukraine dealings.
On the one hand the report debunks many of the conspiracy theories promoted by the president and his allies claiming that the bureau launched its probe as part of a “witch hunt” or attempted “coup” by agents and top level officials who were politically hostile to Trump.
In fact, Horowitz could find no evidence that political bias or improper motivations influenced the decision to open up Crossfire Hurricane in the summer of 2016. Instead, the report quotes E.W. “Bill” Priestap, assistant FBI director for counterintelligence, as saying that the bureau’s investigation into the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and the funneling of internal party emails to WikiLeaks “created a counterintelligence concern that the FBI was ‘obligated’ to investigate.”
Priestap further told Horowitz that the bureau considered, but then rejected, the idea of giving a “defensive briefing” to the Trump campaign about the investigation — a move that would have effectively given the then candidate and the top officials of his campaign a warning to be wary of operatives with potential Russian ties. Instead, the bureau chose to keep Trump in the dark — a decision that Republicans have charged was malfeasance on the bureau’s part but FBI officials defended as essential to preserve the integrity of the investigation.
Such a “defensive” briefing, Priestap said, created a risk that “if someone on the campaign was engaged with the Russians,” they might change tactics or seek to “cover up” their activities, “thereby preventing us from finding the truth."
In fact, the report reveals, FBI agents — including one on the Crossfire Hurricane team — participated in a “strategic intelligence” briefing for Trump and his national security advisers in August 2016 but told them nothing about the Russia probe. “The FBI viewed the briefing of candidate Trump and his advisers as a possible opportunity to collect information potentially relevant” to Crossfire Hurricane and a related probe into Michael Flynn, then one of Trump’s top advisers, the report states.
But the inspector general’s conclusions that the FBI’s original investigation was properly justified was immediately criticized by Attorney General William Barr and his handpicked investigator, John Durham, who is conducting a broader criminal inquiry into the FBI’s and CIA’s conduct in the Russia probe.
“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,” Mr. Barr said in a statement.
Durham, a career prosecutor and U.S. attorney in Connecticut who has worked under presidents in both parties, offered his own critical statement. “Last month, we 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,” he said. That seems to indicate he believes he has uncovered information that goes beyond what is in the inspector general report, and that the intense controversy over the Russia investigation is likely to continue unabated.
At the same time, the report offers a wealth of new details about the bureau’s interactions with Steele, whose so-called dossier was published by BuzzFeed in January 2017, complete with sensational allegations of a “well developed conspiracy” between Trump and the Kremlin, including claims that Russian agents had “kompromat” — compromising information — on the president in the form of tapes of his consorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room during the Miss Universe pageant in November 2013. Those allegations, like much else in Steele’s memos, remain uncorroborated to this day.
As laid out by Horowitz, the FBI’s dealing with Steele was flawed from the start and ultimately led to what the report concludes were “serious performance failures” by the FBI, including by “senior officials in the chain of command” who failed to rigorously check the information the bureau was providing to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to justify the warrants.
At least one of those senior managers, former deputy and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, pushed back on the findings, emphasizing that the inspector general review “found an ample factual basis for the launching of the Russian investigation” and there was a unanimous view among senior FBI and Justice Department officials that failure to launch the probe “would have been a dereliction of duty by the FBI,” according to an email from his lawyer.
McCabe’s lawyer Michael Bromwich added in an emailed statement to reporters: Although the inspector general report found “numerous errors, process failures and isolated instances of misconduct,” those took place “at multiple layers below” McCabe and there was “no way” he could have known unless someone specifically told him. “The report makes clear that no one did,” he added.
A former spy for Britain’s MI-6 intelligence service who was a specialist on Russia, Steele had operated a London-based private intelligence firm called Orbis that had supplied information in recent years for both the State Department and the FBI in its investigation into corruption in the world soccer federation known as FIFA. Steele was hired in June 2016 to investigate Trump’s activities in Russia by Fusion GPS, the Washington-based intelligence firm that had in turn been retained by a law firm working for the Clinton campaign.
By September 2016, Steele was convinced that Trump and members of his campaign were colluding with the Russians in their interference in the U.S. election and that Page — who had travelled to Moscow and given a speech at a school there — was a key intermediary between the campaign and the Kremlin. That month, Steele flew to Washington and, on background, briefed multiple journalists — including this reporter — that he had found evidence that Page had met with Igor Sechin, chairman of the energy conglomerate Rosneft and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who had been sanctioned by the U.S. government, and another senior Kremlin official who had responsibility for cyberattacks on the Democrats, during his recent speech to Moscow.
That led to a Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo News story that disclosed that U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating the allegations about Page made by a “Western intelligence source.” The story, the first to report any U.S. investigation into links between a member of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, was based on confirmation from a senior U.S. law enforcement official.
The new inspector general’s report reveals that, although Steele had given copies of some of his dossier memos to an FBI agent in early July, the Crossfire Hurricane team that was conducting the Russia investigation had just received them four days earlier, on Sept. 19. The Steele memos “played a central and essential role in the FBI’s and [the Justice Department’s] decision to seek the FISA order,” the report states. In fact, when FBI agents opened Crossfire Hurricane, they deemed it a “close call” as to whether the FISA warrant was justified — and only changed their view after receiving the Steele material.
The inspector general found 17 instances in which bureau agents either misstated or withheld key information about Steele’s credibility from higher-level FBI and Justice Departments officials as well as the FISA court. At least some of those involved questions about his sources, including a “primary” sub-source who collected the allegations about Trump from other sources in Russia. Steele himself admitted to the FBI that his source was a “boaster” and an “egoist.” Another FBI official assessed the Steele material as consisting of “internet rumor,” and, according to a report, one of the alleged sources to Steele’s “primary” source disputed some of the information attributed to him.
Among the other significant omissions to the FISA court cited by the report was information that Page had done prior work for another (unidentified) U.S. government agency between 2008 and 2013 — a fact that could have raised questions about the claim that he was really working for a foreign power. After receiving an email about Page’s prior work, an FBI lawyer wrongly informed a supervisor that Page was “never a source” for the agency and then “altered” the email he had gotten asserting that he had been. The lawyer’s conduct has since been referred by Horowitz to Durham to determine if there was any criminal misconduct.
Cover thumbnail photo: Michael Horowitz, Justice Department inspector general. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images )
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