Horowitz Hearing Highlights: Watchdog Warns Against Exonerating F.B.I. in Russia Inquiry, Pointing to Flaws
‘The Activities We Found Here Don’t Vindicate Anybody,’ Horowitz Says
Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that his report was not a vindication of F.B.I. officials involved in the parts of the Russia investigation that he reviewed.
“James Comey said this week that your report vindicates him. Is that a fair assessment of your report?” “You know, I think the activities we found here don’t vindicate anybody who touched this. Although we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence of intentional misconduct, we also did not receive satisfactory explanations for any of the errors or omissions we identified. We found, and as we outlined here, are deeply concerned that so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked investigative teams on one of the most sensitive F.B.I. investigations after the matter had been briefed to the highest levels within the F.B.I., even though the information sought through the use of FISA authority related so closely to an ongoing presidential campaign. And even though those involved with the investigation knew that their actions would likely be subjected to close scrutiny.”
Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that his report was not a vindication of F.B.I. officials involved in the parts of the Russia investigation that he reviewed.CreditCredit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee members of both parties praised the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, during a hearing on Wednesday for unearthing a litany of serious problems with one aspect of the Russia investigation: the F.B.I.’s pursuit of a court order to wiretap a former Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page.
At a hearing to discuss his new long-awaited report, Mr. Horowitz underscored longstanding serious issues with how the F.B.I. 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 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 F.B.I. surveillance.
Many of the problems that Mr. Horowitz uncovered centered on investigators’ use of a dossier of opposition research about Mr. Trump compiled by a British former spy, 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 of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a close ally of President Trump, slammed the F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. needed little approval to use such intrusive techniques, even in such sensitive investigations, and that F.B.I. 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 F.B.I.
One of Mr. Horowitz’s biggest findings concluded that Justice Department and F.B.I. 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 labeled investigators the “Misfire Hurricane” team. Mr. Graham pointed to texts among F.B.I. 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 O.K. within the F.B.I.,” added Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah.
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.
Read the Inspector General’s Report on the Russia Investigation
The Justice Department’s inspector general released this report into the early stages of the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation.
Horowitz detailed interactions with 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 F.B.I. opened it as a “full” counterintelligence inquiry, and John H. Durham, a United States attorney investigating the Russia inquiry at the behest of Attorney General William P. Barr, believed it should have been a “preliminary” one, Mr. Horowitz said.
Under F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. had sufficient facts to open a full investigation, and he said neither Mr. Durham nor Mr. Barr presented any information that changed his mind.
Mr. Horowitz concluded that the F.B.I. had sufficient facts to open a full investigation, and he said neither Attorney General William P. Barr nor John H. Durham presented information that changed his mind.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times
Senators keyed in on how the F.B.I. interacted with the Trump campaign.
Republican senators expressed alarm that an F.B.I. agent collected information about Mr. Trump and Michael T. Flynn, a top adviser at the time, while briefing them on counterintelligence 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 F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. 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 the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. 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.
Horowitz proposed changes for the F.B.I.
F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. 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 F.B.I. needed to a better job running investigations from headquarters.
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