Watchdog warns against exonerating FBI in Russia inquiry, pointing to flaws

US Justice Department inspector-general Michael Horowitz underscored long-standing serious issues with how the FBI wields its surveillance tools. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Senate Judiciary Committee members of both parties praised the Justice Department's inspector-general, Mr Michael Horowitz, during a hearing on Wednesday (Dec 11) for unearthing a litany of serious problems with one aspect of the Russia investigation: the FBI's pursuit of a court order to wiretap a former Trump foreign policy adviser, Mr Carter Page.

At a hearing to discuss his new long-awaited report, Mr Horowitz underscored long-standing serious issues with how the FBI wields its surveillance tools, and he portrayed the bureau during the time of the Russia investigation as dysfunctional.

Though he said he found no evidence the mistakes were the result of political bias, as President Donald Trump and his allies have long claimed, he cautioned that no one should view his report as a vindication of officials involved in the investigation.

"The activities we found here don't vindicate anybody who touched this," he said.

THE HEARING HIGHLIGHTED PROBLEMS WITH SURVEILLANCE

Many of the problems that Mr Horowitz uncovered centred on investigators' use of a dossier of opposition research about Mr Trump compiled by a British former spy, Mr Christopher Steele, as part of the materials submitted to the court to show they had probable cause to suspect that Mr Page was an agent of a foreign power.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a close ally of Mr Trump, slammed the FBI for using the dossier in the Page wiretap applications - and for continuing to use it to seek renewals even after they interviewed Mr Steele's primary source and he contradicted what the dossier said.

Republicans also repeatedly expressed concerns that the FBI took actions that amounted to spying on the campaign. In particular, officials used at least one informant who wore a concealed recording device and an undercover agent to interact with two Trump campaign aides.

The inspector-general said that the FBI needed little approval to use such intrusive techniques, even in such sensitive investigations, and that FBI officials did not notify Justice Department leaders, which he described as concerning.

"Nobody knew beforehand," Mr Horowitz said. "And that was one of the most concerning things here, was that nobody needed to be told."

REPUBLICANS CHALLENGED HOROWITZ'S CONCLUSION THAT NO ANTI-TRUMP PLOT EXISTED AT THE FBI

One of Mr Horowitz's biggest findings concluded that Justice Department and FBI officials did not let their political views affect the opening of the case, called Crossfire Hurricane, or investigative steps.

Republicans immediately attacked this conclusion. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana labelled investigators the "Misfire Hurricane" team.

Mr Graham pointed to texts among FBI officials involved in the investigation - uncovered by the inspector-general - that indicated anti-Trump sentiments as evidence that the officials acted with bias.

"There is no planet on which I think this report indicates that things were OK within the FBI," added Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.

Mr Horowitz said that while he found no evidence that the errors and omissions in the surveillance materials were intentional - as opposed to merely stemming from "gross incompetence and negligence" - he was also unsatisfied with the explanations offered for why they happened.

He said he could not read people's minds to learn their motivations.

MR HOROWITZ DETAILED INTERACTIONS WITH ATTORNEY-GENERAL WILLIAM BARR AND A PROSECUTOR ALSO REVIEWING THE RUSSIA INQUIRY

Mr Horowitz revealed that a prosecutor conducting his own review of the Russia investigation disputed the inspector-general's findings about the scope of the inquiry when investigators first opened it.

The FBI opened it as a "full" counter-intelligence inquiry, and Mr John Durham, a US attorney investigating the Russia inquiry at the behest of Attorney-General William Barr, believed it should have been a "preliminary" one, Mr Horowitz said.

Under FBI standards, agents can open a preliminary investigation on "any allegation or information" that indicates possible criminal activity or threats to national security.

Opening a full investigation requires "an articulable factual basis" that "reasonably indicates" that a crime or security threat exists.

Mr Horowitz concluded that the FBI had sufficient facts to open a full investigation, and he said neither Mr Durham nor Mr Barr presented any information that changed his mind.

SENATORS KEYED IN ON HOW THE FBI INTERACTED WITH THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN

Republican senators expressed alarm that an FBI agent collected information about Mr Trump and Mr Michael Flynn, a top adviser at the time, while briefing them on counter-intelligence risks to the Trump campaign in August 2016.

The agent thought the briefing would be a good opportunity to make himself familiar with Mr Flynn, who was one of the four Trump associates under investigation and might need to be interviewed later.

In the days afterward, the FBI agent wrote a memo based on his observations of Mr Trump and Mr Flynn and added it to the Russia investigation file.

The episode highlighted a key complaint by Trump allies about the Russia inquiry: that investigators improperly intruded on the campaign.

Though Mr Horowitz did not uncover any instances of agents flouting policy in the investigative steps they took, critics have called for the FBI to reconsider its lack of restrictions on opening investigations that involve scrutiny of constitutionally protected activities, such as political campaigns.

Asked whether the move was typical, Mr Horowitz said there was no policy forbidding it, then mentioned that FBI Director Christopher Wray had insisted that it would "not happen" going forward.

"I think it's pretty clear what his state of mind is on that: This should not have occurred," Mr Horowitz said.

MR HOROWITZ PROPOSED CHANGES FOR THE FBI

FBI officials could have avoided many of their troubling mistakes and omissions, Mr Horowitz concluded in his report, offering nine recommendations for changes in the bureau to prevent similar failures.

The FBI opened the Russia investigation without the approval of the Justice Department and did notify national security lawyers at the department after the investigation was opened.

Though that is allowed under existing policies, the inspector-general said officials should evaluate whether certain sensitive investigations should require informing the deputy attorney-general.

The inspector-general also said that top officials at the FBI needed to a better job running investigations from headquarters.

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