FBI's Russia probe made errors but wasn't biased, says U.S. justice watchdog

The Justice Department's internal watchdog tells Congress that he is concerned that "so many basic and fundamental errors" were made by the FBI as it investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that it was free of political bias.

Republicans call probe 'bogus narrative,' while Democrats cite lack of partisan bias

U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz arrives to testify before the Senate in Washington, two days after delivering a long-awaited report on the origins of an investigation into Russian contacts with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The Justice Department's internal watchdog told Congress on Wednesday that he is concerned that "so many basic and fundamental errors" were made by the FBI as it investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz's testimony before the Senate's judiciary committee came two days after the release of a report that identified significant problems with applications to receive and renew warrants to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide in 2016 and 2017. Despite those problems, the report also found that the FBI's actions were not motivated by partisan bias and that the investigation was opened for a proper cause.

Horowitz told senators that the FBI failed to follow its own standards for accuracy and completeness when it sought a warrant to monitor the communications of ex-campaign aide Carter Page.

"We also identified what we believe is an absence of sufficient policies to ensure appropriate department oversight of significant investigative decisions that could affect constitutionally protected activity," said Horowitz, whose opening statement was released publicly before he testified.

Horowitz testified the investigation, named Crossfire Hurricane, was "opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication" and that there was no evidence of political bias uncovered despite the mistakes.

The hearing was the latest reflection of Washington's intense politicization. Senators from both parties praised a detailed, nuanced report by a widely respected, nonpartisan investigator, while pressing him to call attention to findings that back their positions.

Democrats seized on the finding that the probe was not tainted by political motivations. But Republicans say the findings show the investigation was fatally flawed. Attorney General William Barr, a vocal defender of President Donald Trump, said the FBI investigation was based on a "bogus narrative."

Horowitz himself tried to strike a balance. He insisted that the FBI should not feel comforted by his findings and pointed out the absence of evidence for some of the most sensational claims by Trump and his supporters: that the investigation into ties between his presidential campaign and Russia had been opened for political reasons, that agents had infiltrated his election bid or that former President Barack Obama had directed a wiretap of the Republican candidate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the committee and another ally of Trump, echoed the Barr sentiment in his opening statement.  

"What happened here is the system failed. People in the highest levels of government took the law into their own hands," Graham said.

"Trump's time will come and go, but I hope we understand that what happened here can never happen again," he added.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel, took exception to Barr's efforts in media interviews this week to express disagreements with some of Horowitz's findings.

She said that Trump's frequent characterizations of the probe as a witch hunt have been disproven.

"There is no 'Deep State.' Simply put, the FBI investigation was motivated by facts, not bias," said Feinstein.

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Horowitz told senators that the FBI failed to follow its own standards for accuracy and completeness when it sought a warrant from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Page's communications.

"We are deeply concerned that so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked investigative teams, on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations, after the matter had been briefed to the highest levels within the FBI," Horowitz said.

The report detailed 17 errors and omissions during those wiretap applications, including failing to tell the court when questions were raised about the reliability of some of the information that it had presented to receive the warrants.

Those problems were especially alarming because the warrant to monitor Page "related so closely to an ongoing presidential campaign" and "even though those involved with the investigation knew that their actions were likely to be subjected to close scrutiny."

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Besides the errors in the warrant application process, he pointedly noted that the FBI had not consulted with the Justice Department before using informants to interact with Trump campaign aides during the investigation, though he also said no policy required it to do so.

"We therefore believe that current department and FBI policies are not sufficient to ensure appropriate oversight and accountability when such operations potentially implicate sensitive, constitutionally protected activity, and that requiring department consultation, at a minimum, would be appropriate," Horowitz said.

U.S. Senate judiciary committee chair Lindsey Graham is shown delivering an opening statement prior to hearing testimony from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Disagreement with Barr

Barr, who last year said before Congress he believed "spying did occur" on the Trump campaign, has assigned a prosecutor, John Durham, to explore the beginnings of the intelligence gathering process for the probe. That separate inquiry will also result in a report, expected sometime next year.

On Tuesday, Barr said the Russia investigation was based on a "bogus narrative" and he declined to rule out that agents may have acted in bad faith.

Horowitz said that he has spoken with Barr about his findings, and that the attorney general did not present anything that changed his conclusions.

Republican senators repeatedly asked about another criticism Horowitz levelled at the FBI — that the bureau sent a representative from its Russia investigation team to a strategic intelligence briefing that intelligence officials gave to both the Hillary Clinton and Trump campaigns, including to Trump himself and aide Michael Flynn, who later became the administration's national security adviser.

That was a "pretext," Horowitz said, to collect information that might be relevant for the investigation. The FBI debated but ultimately opted to not give a standard and more extensive defensive briefing that Russia might be trying to influence their campaign, fearful that it could impede the ongoing counterintelligence investigation.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said that decision struck him as reasonable, particularly because Flynn was himself under suspicion and ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia's ambassador to the United States.

Attorney General William Barr is shown at a speech in Washington on Tuesday. Barr has come out publicly to express his disagreement with the conclusion Horowitz reached regarding bias motivating the course of the FBI's investigation. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

Nonetheless, Horowitz said, "it raises significant policy questions."

Republicans in the hearing continued to disparage the so-called Steele Dossier, a research document of information on Trump prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele that was shared with the FBI, as well as some reporters and politicians in late 2016.

But, Horowitz said of the dossier, "It had no impact. It was not known to the team that opened the investigation."

Under questioning from Republicans, the inspector general rejected the views of former FBI Director James Comey, who had claimed vindication for the bureau based on Horowitz's conclusions.

"I think the activities we found don't vindicate anybody," said Horowitz.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has said he accepts all the inspector general's findings, is making changes on the briefing process. The FBI said that, going forward, briefings will be "solely intended to provide candidates" with relevant information and that FBI briefers will not be associated with any ongoing FBI investigation.

With files from CBC News


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