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 highly anticipated Department of Justice Inspector General’s report on the surveillance of a Trump campaign associate.
Attorney General William Barr assigned U.S. Attorney John 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 Trump-campaign associate 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 “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 Department of Justice Inspector General (DOJ IG) Michael Horowitz, meanwhile, is limited to violations of FBI and Justice Department policies.
Since March 2018, Horowitz’s office has been investigating the actions taken by the FBI and the DOJ in relation to the four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant applications to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page. The DOJ IG report concluded that the applications contained 17 significant errors. The errors and other failures in the process amounted to “serious performance failures” by the supervisory and non-supervisory FBI agents who handled the warrant applications, the report states.
In a statement issued shortly after the release of the DOJ IG report, Barr assessed that the surveillance of Page constituted a “clear abuse” of the FISA process.
“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 reflects a clear abuse of the FISA process.”
Barr added that FBI Director Christopher Wray is “dismayed” by the handling of the FISA applications. Wray is expected to announce a comprehensive set of reforms on Dec. 9, according to Barr.
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 the Trump-campaign associate for a total of 12 months.
The FISA warrant applications 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.
“Steele himself was not the originating source of any of the factual information in his reporting. Steele instead relied on a Primary Sub-source for information, who used his/her network of sub-sources to gather information that was then passed to Steele,” the IG report states.
The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee ultimately paid for Steele’s work, a fact the FBI did not disclose in the warrant application.
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 every person who communicated with Page’s contacts. As a result, it is possible that the FBI obtained the communications of the entire Trump campaign, both retroactively and in real-time.
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 Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok.
The scandal surrounding the surveillance warrants was amplified by the discovery of biased text messages between Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page, with whom Strzok was having an extramarital affair. Strzok and Page vented their hatred of Trump, spoke of 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” once 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 was unable to find evidence to support the claim that the bias had an effect on any investigative decisions.
Horowitz formally announced the investigation into the Carter Page FISA in March 2018. He submitted a draft report to the DOJ in September. Horowitz said at the time that his team reviewed more than 1 million documents and interviewed more than 100 witnesses.