Watchdog Pledges ‘Deep Dive’ on FBI’s Possible Wiretap Abuse

Chris Strohm

(Bloomberg) -- The Justice Department’s internal watchdog pledged the first-ever “deep dive” to determine the extent of abuses of the secret court that approves wiretaps of suspected terrorists and national security threats.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a hearing on Wednesday.

Horowitz, who said he’ll start with a sampling of cases, opened an inquiry into wiretap orders issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after he found multiple failures in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s applications to wiretap former Trump campaign official Carter Page.

“What we’re going to do in the first instance is have our auditors do some selections of counterintelligence and counterterrorism” applications, Horowitz said. “We have limited resources, and we want to make sure we’re targeting them in the right places.”

President Donald Trump and Republicans seized on Horowitz’s findings as vindication for their claims that anti-Trump forces in the FBI and Justice Department wiretapped Page in order to spy on Trump’s campaign and early presidency.

Horowitz said he found no political bias in the FBI’s decisions but that his office was given unsatisfactory answers by FBI officials on the failures in the Page warrant applications.

Revamping Urged

Lawmakers from both parties now are talking about revamping the FISA process, especially when it comes to surveillance that affects a political campaign.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, suggested during Wednesday’s hearing that the secretive FISA process shouldn’t be used when the target of an operation is a political candidate or campaign.

“We should not subject our political campaigns to secret courts and to secret warrants and secret surveillance,” Paul said.

The ACLU is among longtime critics of the FISA court’s secret proceedings that have long urged restricting or eliminating it as a threat to civil liberties.

Barr’s Defense

However, Attorney General William Barr defended the use of FISA warrants at a press conference in Detroit on Wednesday.

“I think FISA is a critical tool to protecting Americans,“ Barr said, “We are committed to preserving FISA, and we think all Americans should be committed to preserving FISA.”

Barr lambasted the FBI last week for the failures identified in Horowitz’s report, saying the bureau’s probe was a “complete sham” and was marred by “gross abuse.” On Wednesday, though, he praised current FBI Director Christopher Wray as his “good friend” while standing alongside him.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the job that is being done by the FBI across the board,” Barr said.

The court that approves and oversees wiretaps ordered the FBI on Tuesday to explain what it’s doing to ensure applications are legally sound and accurate, setting a Jan. 10 deadline.

“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,” U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote in the order.

Current and former FBI officials have told judges, lawmakers and the public for years that applications for FISA warrants are carefully drafted to meet legal and ethical obligations, and that layers of oversight ensure they’re accurate.

But very few applications have been rejected by the FISA court: Only 72 were denied in full or in part out of about 1,318 that were submitted to the court in 2018, according to an annual report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

(Updates with Barr defending FISA starting in the 11th graph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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