Inspector General Report on F.B.I. Russia Inquiry Finds Serious Errors But Debunks Anti-Trump Plot

Inspector General Report on F.B.I. Russia Inquiry Finds Serious Errors But Debunks Anti-Trump Plot

WASHINGTON — A long-awaited report by the Justice Department’s inspector general released on Monday sharply criticized the F.B.I.’s handling of a wiretap application used in the early stages of its Russia investigation but debunked President Trump’s accusations that former bureau leaders engaged in a politicized conspiracy to sabotage him.

Investigators uncovered “no documentary or testimonial evidence” that political bias affected how officials conducted the investigation, said the report, which totaled more than 400 pages. The F.B.I. had sufficient evidence in July 2016 to lawfully open the investigation, known as Crossfire Hurricane, and officials followed procedures in using informants to approach campaign aides, the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, determined.

But Mr. Horowitz also uncovered substantial dysfunction, carelessness and serious errors in one part of the sprawling inquiry: the F.B.I.’s applications for court orders approving a wiretap targeting Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser with ties to Russia. He found that one low-ranking F.B.I. lawyer altered a related document and referred the lawyer for possible prosecution.

By puncturing conspiracy theories promoted by Mr. Trump and his allies, yet sharply criticizing law enforcement actions that have not been the subject of public debate, Mr. Horowitz’s mixed findings may offer vindication for both critics and allies of Mr. Trump. The exhaustive report by an independent official is likely to stand as a definitive accounting of the F.B.I.’s actions in the early stages of the Russia investigation.

Attorney General William P. Barr, who was said to be skeptical of Mr. Horowitz’s conclusion that officials had a proper basis to open the Russia investigation, praised the inspector general but reiterated his longstanding complaints about the F.B.I. inquiry, saying the bureau’s “malfeasance and misfeasance” detailed in the report reflected a “clear abuse” of the wiretap application process.

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the F.B.I. 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 that echoed his willingness to act as Mr. Trump’s defender at the end of the special counsel investigation that grew out of the Russia inquiry.

Mr. Horowitz’s findings on the wiretap application showed that when it mattered most — with the stakes the greatest and no room for error — F.B.I. officials on various teams still made numerous and serious mistakes in wielding a powerful surveillance tool. The discovery calls into question the bureau’s surveillance practices in routine cases without such high-stakes political implications.

“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked teams on one of the most sensitive F.B.I. investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the F.B.I., and that F.B.I. officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the F.B.I. chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process,” the report said.

The report came on the same day that House Democrats moved forward with their impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump, with a lawyer for the Judiciary Committee telling its members during a hearing that the president’s dealings with Ukraine were “so brazen” that there was no question that he had abused his power to advance his own political interests over the country’s.

The report, as well as Mr. Barr’s criticism, is certain to extend the debate over the legitimacy of the F.B.I.’s inquiry. Mr. Barr has publicly said he thinks the Trump campaign was subjected to “spying” and tapped John H. Durham, the United States attorney in Connecticut, to lead yet another investigation into the Russia investigation.

Though the report largely exonerated F.B.I. officials of the president’s most inflammatory accusations, Mr. Trump’s persistent attacks have nonetheless already damaged the bureau’s reputation. Top officials were fired, while others left the bureau.

Much of the report focused on the paperwork associated with the wiretapping of Mr. Page, who was first approved for targeting in October 2016, about a month after he had stepped down from the Trump campaign. The Justice Department obtained three renewals of court permission to eavesdrop on Mr. Page — two under the Trump administration.

The four applications contained dozens of significant inaccuracies, material omissions or assertions that were not backed in supporting documents, according to the report, which grouped them in a chart. The applications for the wiretap relied on historical information about Mr. Page’s contacts before 2016, and claims about his 2016 interactions with Russians came from a notorious dossier of opposition research collected by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent paid by Democrats.

For example, the F.B.I. never told the main Justice Department, which in turn never told the court, that Mr. Page had for years been providing information to the C.I.A. about his prior contacts with Russian intelligence officials, including an encounter cited in the application as a reason to be suspicious of him. That made his history less suspicious, Mr. Horowitz suggested.

The F.B.I.’s omission of Mr. Page’s contacts with the C.I.A. relates to the criminal referral that Mr. Horowitz made about an F.B.I. lawyer assigned to assist the Russia investigation team. He found that the lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, altered an email from the C.I.A. to a colleague during a renewal application.

An F.B.I. official who had to sign an affidavit attesting to the accuracy and completeness of a court filing had specifically asked about any relationship with the C.I.A. Mr. Clinesmith altered the email so that it stated that Mr. Page was “not a source,” contributing to the Justice Department’s failure to discuss his relationship with the C.I.A. in a renewal application.

Mr. Horowitz has referred his findings about Mr. Clinesmith to prosecutors for a potential criminal investigation for making a false statement. Mr. Clinesmith left the Russia investigation in February 2018 after the inspector general identified him as one of a handful of F.B.I. officials who expressed animus toward Mr. Trump’s election as president in internal texts. He resigned from the bureau in September.

In addition to the other issues with the wiretap application, the F.B.I. in January 2017 interviewed a primary source for important claims about Mr. Page in Mr. Steele’s dossier. In the interview, the source contradicted some of what Mr. Steele had written. But F.B.I. officials said only that they found the source “truthful and cooperative,” leaving the false impression in renewal applications that his account had confirmed rather than raised doubts about the dossier’s reporting.

Indeed, as recently as July 2018, when the Justice Department sent a letter to the court discussing certain errors or omissions in its Page wiretap applications, the report said, it continued to defend the reliability of Mr. Steele’s reporting and the court filings by portraying Mr. Steele’s source has having corroborated his dossier.

The report placed primary blame for the significant errors and omissions on sloppiness by F.B.I. case agents, including one unnamed investigator who mischaracterized information and failed to advise the Justice Department officials working on court filings of several important facts.

The inspector general found that this pattern was not intentional, but that explanations offered in defense of the agents — such as that they were busy with the Russia investigation at the time and “the Carter Page FISA was a narrow aspect of their overall responsibilities” — were unsatisfactory.

Mr. Horowitz took no position on whether the outcome would have been different — and the intelligence court would not have approved wiretapping Mr. Page or extending the surveillance for additional periods — without the misstatements and omissions.

Still, notwithstanding now-famous text messages sent by several other F.B.I. officials that indicated a dislike for Mr. Trump, the bureau’s top counterintelligence official, Bill Priestap, made the decisions to open the investigation and scrutinize four Trump campaign figures with links to Russia, and Mr. Horowitz found that he had a sufficient and lawful basis to do so.

“Priestap’s exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with department and F.B.I. policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision,” the report said.

Mr. Trump’s frequent F.B.I. targets participated in Mr. Horowitz’s investigation, sitting for hours of interviews. That list includes James B. Comey, the former director; Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy and acting director; James A. Baker, the former general counsel; Lisa Page, a former senior counsel to Mr. McCabe; and Peter Strzok, a former senior counterintelligence agent.

Mr. Horowitz had previously uncovered text messages that Ms. Page and Mr. Strzok had exchanged on their work phones expressing hostility toward Mr. Trump, but his report found no evidence that any investigative steps were influenced by their personal political opinions. He made a similar finding about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which involved many of the same law enforcement officials.

A footnote cited other F.B.I. officials who supported Mr. Trump’s campaign and expressed hostility toward Mrs. Clinton. It quoted text messages celebrating his surprise electoral win, including one by an agent who later explained to the inspector general that he was glad Mrs. Clinton lost because “I didn’t want a criminal in the White House.” The report similarly does not accuse these officials of taking official actions based on their personal political opinions.

Mr. Trump’s allies have argued that law enforcement officials abused their powers by using opposition research to get a wiretap and that the Justice Department should have done more to alert the court that Mr. Trump’s political opponents had funded Mr. Steele’s efforts.

A lengthy footnote in the application told the court that the information was most likely opposition research but did not specifically name the funders: the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Mr. Horowitz observed that is standard practice not to explicitly name Americans or American organizations in such sensitive documents; Mr. Trump, for example, is referred to as “Candidate #1.”

“The Carter Page FISA application did not identify by name Steele’s clients or the presidential candidates, which is consistent with the department’s general practice of not disclosing the true identities of U.S. persons who are not the surveillance targets in FISA applications,” Mr. Horowitz wrote.

Despite the particular attention it has received, the wiretap of Mr. Page was but a very small piece of a much larger, sprawling F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference. Investigators obtained nearly 500 search warrants and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, according to the special counsel’s report.

The report found that Mr. Steele’s information was not used in the opening of the Russia investigation, as Mr. Trump’s allies have frequently but falsely suggested as part of their claim that the F.B.I. spied on the Trump campaign as part of a politicized plot.

But the inspector general also determined that F.B.I. did not place informants or undercover agents in the campaign, and it did not ask them to “report on the Trump campaign.” Nor did the inspector general find evidence that undercover agents or informants were told to meet with Trump campaign officials before the opening of Crossfire Hurricane. Members told the inspector general that no investigative steps were before the actual opening of the investigation in late July 2016.

Instead, it confirms that the F.B.I. opened the inquiry after WikiLeaks began publicly releasing hacked Democratic emails and officials learned that a Trump campaign aide had previously bragged to a pair of Australian diplomats of knowing that Russia had dirt on Mrs. Clinton in the form of hacked emails it was willing to release anonymously to help Mr. Trump.

That campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, has subsequently accused the person who told him about Russia’s possession of those emails, a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud, of being an F.B.I. and C.I.A. asset engaged in a conspiracy to entrap the Trump campaign. But Mr. Horowitz is said to have found no evidence to corroborate that he worked for the F.B.I.

The inspector general also noted that the F.B.I. apparently requested information from another agency but that portion remains blacked out. It was previously reported that Mr. Mifsud did not work for the C.I.A., either.

Mr. Papadopoulos was later convicted of lying to the F.B.I. about his interactions with Mr. Mifsud. Mr. Trump has also raised the specter of a “deep state” conspiracy involving Mr. Mifsud.

In addition, the inspector general looked at the role of a Justice Department official named Bruce G. Ohr, who has been vilified by Mr. Trump and his allies because he was in contact with Mr. Steele and because his wife worked for the political research firm that employed Mr. Steele.

The inspector general criticized Mr. Ohr for failing to keep his supervisors informed of his actions, but does not accuse him of being part of a conspiracy. The inspector general described Mr. Ohr making “consequential errors in judgment,” requesting meetings with senior law enforcement officials outside his area of responsibility, by making himself “a witness” in the investigation.

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