Republican lawmakers on Wednesday faulted FBI Director Christopher Wray for what they called a grossly inadequate response to the Justice Department’s recent watchdog report on abuses in the process used to put Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser, under surveillance as a potential Russian agent.
Wray announced more than 40 reforms triggered by the findings of the inspector general report, but Republican lawmakers who questioned the FBI chief at a House Judiciary Committee hearing said they wanted to see more decisive actions, like firings of agents and other FBI employees involved in the shoddy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications.
“What took place in this report is way past constructive criticism. This was a major screw-up,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said. “I’m concerned you’re not taking this seriously enough.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said, “I’m telling you the FBI’s reputation cannot be cleaned up until there are people that are held to account for the unacceptable actions here in Washington.”
Wray said he agreed with Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s findings that the surveillance court applications related to Page were mishandled.
“The failures highlighted in that report are unacceptable. Period. … It cannot be repeated,” the FBI director said during the four-hour-plus hearing — his first congressional appearance since Horowitz’s report was released in December. “I do not think anyone has carte blanche to bypass rules, and I intend to make that painfully clear, that that is not acceptable in the FBI today.”
Wray said he had stressed to employees in every FBI field office and at headquarters that the agency needed to do its investigations “by the book.”
“How we do what we do matters,” he said. “The American people expect the FBI not just to get to the right result, but to do it the right way.”
Those sorts of answers did not satisfy some Republicans.
“I’m terribly disappointed that you cannot summon the outrage to put it in stronger words than ‘this is unacceptable and doesn’t represent the FBI,’” Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said. “Unfortunately, at the moment, it does represent the FBI or at least the leadership of the FBI. … I don’t trust your agency anymore.”
Wray said lawmakers should not mistake his buttoned-down manner for a lack of urgency in addressing the simmering concerns about the FBI.
“I am not somebody, as quite clear by now to a lot of people, who expresses himself with hyperbole and loud rhetoric. I am somebody who reflects his views through actions,” he said.
The FBI director said most of the senior officials and supervisors mentioned in the inspector general report had left the agency.
“Some of them have been terminated. Some of them left on their own. Some of them have sued me,” Wray said with a chuckle.
While he declined to discuss specific cases, Wray said FBI personnel were being held to an even higher standard than others in federal government service.
“I’ve seen conduct that people have been disciplined for that no one else in the government would have been disciplined for,” he said.
Wray did say some FBI personnel had been fired for violating anti-leak policies, but he did not tie those dismissals to the inspector general probe or the Russia investigation.
“When it comes to leaking classified information, we really have to be aggressive with it and we’ve tried to be,” the FBI chief said.
On at least three occasions, Wray sought to rebuff lawmakers’ queries by pointing to the ongoing investigation by John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, who was tapped by Attorney General Bill Barr to examine issues related to the federal government’s inquiries into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Publicly, the contours of Durham’s investigation remain nebulous, but Wray suggested that Durham was scrutinizing the actions of FBI personnel involved.
In something of a reversal of the usual ideological positions on Capitol Hill, Democrats sprung to the defense of the national law enforcement agency on Wednesday, accusing their Republican colleagues of broad attacks that unfairly besmirched the reputations of the tens of thousands of FBI agents, technicians and support staff.
“They are extraordinarily misplaced and they are shameful,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) said of the Republican broadsides.
“I think you’ll probably find those kinds of shortcomings in every law enforcement agency in America, if you look carefully enough,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said. “It’s not a rogue agency out there, hurting people.”
Part of GOP lawmakers’ frustrations with Wray seemed to stem from his resistance to legislative reforms floated by some members of Congress. Jordan mentioned the possibility of an advocate at the largely-secret court representing American citizens, sending classified transcripts of FISA proceedings to Congress, or mandating hearings when surveillance applications are renewed.
The FBI chief sounded wary about all the proposals.
“That’s a change that we’d have to think very, very carefully about, lest it have all kinds of unintended consequences,” Wray said of the possibility of an advocate focused on the rights of U.S. citizens. “We wouldn’t want to grind things to a halt on that front.”
Key anti-terrorism surveillance authorities are set to expire next month. Wray stressed that none of those powers were at issue in the inspector general report, but Republican lawmakers said support for the anti-terrorism measures might be lacking unless reforms related to the recently-exposed FISA problems were included in such legislation.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified which state Congresswoman Madeleine Dean represents. She represents Pennsylvania.