Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz said that the FBI should have mulled shutting down surveillance of Donald Trump campaign aide Carter Page after learning about exculpatory information about him.
Horowitz told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in Washington on Dec. 18 that FBI officials should have considered ending the surveillance in January 2017 after no information was found supporting the allegations that Page was colluding with Russia. The government continued surveilling Page until September 2017.
“We’ve got agents talking with one another about why is Page even a subject anymore,” Horowitz said.
“‘Why are they still looking at him?’ They were actually asking that question not just [about] the FISA but the foundational question of Carter Page—we’re not finding anything as to him, why aren’t we reassessing.”
But the FBI kept going with the probe, ultimately receiving four warrants from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.
“If you’re getting information that isn’t advancing, and in fact potentially undercutting, or simply undercutting your primary theme or theory as was happening here with the Carter Page files, you’d look at the Carter Page file and say, should I keep going on this Carter Page-related matter?” Horowitz said.
The case alarmed the inspector general so much that his office has launched a review of the FBI’s use of the FISA.
“The concern here is this is such a high profile, important case,” Horowitz testified. “If it happened here, is this indicative of a wider problem?”
“And we only will know that when we complete our audit. Or is it isolated to this event? Obviously, we need to do the work to understand that,” he added. The examination of a sampling of FISA’s will feature comparing Woods binders, which are supposed to hold verified evidence backing up claims made to the FISA court, to the applications made to the court.
If the “same basic errors” occurred in the sampling, then Horowitz’s team will keep looking at other FISA applications.
“If you look at the others and you find similar errors and bad explanations there, it may be one answer. Frankly, if you find no other errors there, that would be particularly concerning, as to this one. Why then in this one?” he said.
Some Democrats have seized on Horowitz’s finding that “political bias” didn’t influence the opening of the Trump-Russia investigation but Horowitz told lawmakers that “we found through the text messages evidence of people’s political bias.”
He also said his team received a slew of “unsatisfactory” answers from people involved in the probe, leaving open the question of what motivated the rampant abuse of the FISA.
“Although we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence of intentional misconduct, we also did not receive satisfactory explanations for the errors or the missing information and the failures that occurred,” he said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wondered whether the 17 significant errors or omissions, as well as the additional violations of internal guidelines, could only have two explanations: “Either these people were really incompetent and bad at their jobs, or they had an agenda.”
The FISA abuse prompted a statement from the chief judge of the FISA court this week, who admonished FBI officials over their manipulation of applications to spy on Page. Federal Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote agreed with Horowitz on the abuse calling into question other FISA applications.
“The FBI’s handling of the Carter Page applications, as portrayed in the [Inspector General’s] report, was antithetical to the heightened duty of candor described above,” she wrote.
“The frequency with which representations made by FBI personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable.”