Attorney General Slams Abuse of Spy Powers in Probe of Trump Campaign

December 9, 2019 Updated: December 9, 2019
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Attorney General William Barr assessed on Dec. 9 that the FBI abused government surveillance powers in its investigation of the Donald Trump campaign.

Barr gave his conclusion in response to the highly-anticipated report by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz, who determined that applications for warrants to spy on a Trump campaign associate contained 17 significant errors.

Horowitz concluded that the errors amounted to a failure that implicated the chain of command at the FBI responsible for handling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications, including senior officials.

“In the rush to obtain and maintain FISA surveillance of Trump campaign associates, FBI officials misled the FISA court, omitted critical exculpatory facts from their filings, and suppressed or ignored information negating the reliability of their principal source,” Barr said.

“The Inspector General found the explanations given for these actions unsatisfactory. While most of the misconduct identified by the inspector general was committed in 2016 and 2017 by a small group of now-former FBI officials, the malfeasance and misfeasance detailed in the inspector general’s report reflect a clear abuse of the FISA process.”

Horowitz concluded in the 476-page report released on Dec. 9 that the four applications for warrants to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page were riddled with serious errors that amounted to “serious performance failures by the supervisory and non-supervisory agents.”

The inspector general didn’t find evidence to support the claims that the spying against the campaign was motivated by political bias, according to the report. The controversy surrounding the surveillance of the Trump campaign has long been amplified by the discovery of biased text messages between FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page, who were having an extramarital affair at the time. Strzok and Page vented their hatred of Trump, spoke of what they believed were his slim chances of winning the election, committed to stopping him from being elected, discussed an “insurance policy” in the unlikely event of a Trump victory, and mulled “impeachment” around the time they joined special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.

Strzok led the investigation of the Trump campaign and the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of an unauthorized private email server for government work. In a report on the review of the Clinton email probe, Horowitz concluded that Strzok and Page’s biased messages “cast a cloud” over the investigation, but, similarly to the report on the FISA surveillance, he was unable to find evidence to support the claim that the bias had an effect on any investigative decisions.

According to Barr, FBI Director Christopher Wray was “dismayed” by the handling of the FISA applications. Wray was expected to announce a comprehensive set of reforms on Dec. 9.

U.S. Attorney John Durham, the U.S. attorney tasked with investigating the origins of the investigation of the Trump campaign, issued a rare statement on Dec. 9 disagreeing with some of the conclusions in the DOJ IG report.

Barr assigned Durham earlier this year to probe the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and to assess whether the surveillance of Carter Page was free of improper motive. In a statement issued on Dec. 9, Durham noted that his investigation—unlike the one concluded by the DOJ inspector general—reaches beyond the “component parts of the Justice Department” and includes persons outside the United States.

“Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened,” Durham said in a statement.

Durham’s review recently evolved into a criminal inquiry. The report by Horowitz, meanwhile, is limited to violations of FBI and Justice Department policies.

The FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign in late July 2016. Barr concluded that the investigation was “intrusive” and was initiated based “on the thinnest of suspicions.” The suspicions were “insufficient” to justify the steps the bureau went on to take, Barr said.

“Nevertheless, the investigation and surveillance was pushed forward for the duration of the campaign and deep into President Trump’s administration,” Barr said.

In late October 2016, the FBI secured a FISA warrant to surveil Page. The bureau renewed the warrant three times, surveilling Page for a total of roughly eleven months.

The FISA warrant application featured claims from an unverified dossier of opposition research on Trump. Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele compiled the dossier by using second- and third-hand sources with ties to the Kremlin. The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee ultimately paid for Steele’s work, a fact the FBI didn’t disclose in the warrant application.

The inspector general’s report shows that the FBI withheld information undercutting Steele’s credibility in the original application. The bureau failed to address the issues in the renewal applications, even after receiving further evidence challenging Steele as a reliable source. The team leading the investigation also failed to disclose statements by Steele that undermined the credibility of a key source of the dossier, including that the source was a “boaster” and an “egoist” and “may engage in some embellishment.”

The revelations about Steele are especially concerning because the inspector general’s report revealed that the FBI team leading the investigation of the Trump campaign used the Steele dossier to renew its efforts to obtain a FISA warrant on Page. The team running the investigation of the Trump campaign, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane,” was originally rebuffed when seeking a FISA warrant on Page. But after receiving a copy of the Steele dossier on Sept. 19, 2016, the Crossfire team immediately renewed its efforts.

“We determined that the Crossfire Hurricane team’s receipt of Steele’s election reporting on September 19, 2016 played a central and essential role in the FBI’s and Department’s decision to seek the FISA order,” the Horowitz report states.

President Donald Trump said that the IG report showed that the FBI “fabricated evidence” and “lied to the courts.”

“It’s a disgrace what’s happened with the things that were done to our country,” Trump told Republican senators and state officials in the White House on Dec. 9, shortly after the report was released to the public. “It’s incredible, far worse than what I ever thought possible.”

The inspector general concluded that while the Steele report played a key role in the securing of the FISA application, the FBI didn’t use the document to open the investigation of the Trump campaign in July 2016. The opening of the investigation was predicated entirely on information the bureau received from a “friendly foreign government” regarding statements made by Trump campaign associate George Papadopoulos. Horowitz determined that the decision to open the investigation wasn’t motivated by “political bias” or “improper motivation.”

While the extent of the surveillance granted in Page’s case remains classified, FISA warrants allow for some of the most intrusive spying under the law. Under the so-called “two-hop” rule, investigators could collect the communications of every person Page interacted with as well as every person who communicated with Page’s contacts. As a result, it’s possible that the FBI obtained the communications of the entire Trump campaign, both retroactively and in real-time.

The failures of the Crossfire Hurricane team are thus amplified, considering the potential scope of the intrusion and the sensitive nature of investigating a major political campaign before, during, and after the presidential election. Horowitz determined that much of the information withheld by the Crossfire team “was inconsistent with, or undercut, the assertions contained in the FISA applications that were used to support probable cause and, in some instances, resulted in inaccurate information being included in the applications.”

“Our review found that FBI personnel fell far short of the requirement in FBI policy that they ensure that all factual statements in a FISA application are ‘scrupulously accurate,’” the report states.

The bureau also withheld crucial exculpatory information it possessed about Page, including the fact that he was a source for another government agency, according to the report. Page’s work for that government agency overlapped with the time period of the allegations in the FISA applications. In the applications, the Crossfire Hurricane team described Page as an agent of Russia. Page vehemently denies the claims and the bureau never charged him with a crime. The inspector general determined that the FBI was unable to verify any of the “specific substantive claims” about Page in Steele’s dossier that ended up in the FISA application.

The exculpatory information withheld from the FISA application includes statements by Papadopoulos recorded by an FBI undercover source. The source recorded Papadopoulos denying that “anyone associated with the Trump campaign was collaborating with Russia.”

A number of FBI officials directly involved in preparing and signing the FISA warrants have all either left or been fired from the bureau, including Director James Comey, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and Strzok.

Horowitz formally announced the investigation into the Carter Page FISA in March 2018. He submitted a draft report to the DOJ in September. The inspector general’s office interviewed more than 170 witnesses and reviewed more than 1 million documents as part of the investigation. Horowitz released the report as Democrats held the latest round of impeachment hearings.

“Inspector General Michael Horowitz uncovered ‘significant inaccuracies and omissions’ in FISA applications that precipitated one of the greatest abuses of investigative power in our lifetime,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement.

“Since the day President Trump announced his candidacy, career bureaucrats at the Department of Justice sought to undermine this President and our Administration—including falsifying information and suppressing the truth. What took place here should never happen again to any President or any Administration in the future and those responsible should be held accountable.”

Carter Page told The Epoch Times in an email: “Every American should be troubled by the 17 separate instances of FBI misconduct and abuses identified in the Inspector General’s report. This unchecked surveillance power is a threat to liberty, and there must be a complete reckoning here. This is just the beginning of an important national dialogue about egregious overreach by the intelligence community.”

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