More than 50 employees at all levels of the FBI were in frequent contact with the media without official authorization or rationale during the Clinton email investigation, according to a report released last week by the Justice Department watchdog.
The employees also improperly accepted gifts and benefits from the reporters, including tickets to sporting events, drinks and meals, golf outings, and admittance to private social events, the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found.
FBI policy strictly prohibits unauthorized contact with the media. But employees appeared to “widely” ignore the policy during the Midyear Exam, the FBI’s codename for the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of an unsecured personal server to conduct government business during her time as secretary of state.
The culture of media leaks was so widespread that it influenced the officials advising then-FBI Director James Comey on consequential decisions in the email probe, according to the report (pdf), which also detailed rampant bias among key investigators and officials working the case.
The FBI updated its media policy in November last year to restate its strict guidelines on contacts with the media. The inspector general found that the culture was the problem, not the policy.
“We do not believe the problem is with the FBI’s policy, which we found to be clear and unambiguous,” the inspector general’s report states. “Rather, we concluded that these leaks highlight the need to change what appears to be a cultural attitude among many in the organization.”
In a June 18 testimony about the IG report before the Senate judiciary committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that he is taking immediate steps to fix the leak culture exposed in the report.
The director said that he had created a specialized leak investigation unit, elevated the existing insider threat center to the assistant director level, and instructed the head of the bureau disciplinary office for recommendations on changes that can be made from the top to punish leaks. Wray also said that every employee in the agency will be trained appropriately on the strict prohibitions against leaks to the press.
Starting in at least late July 2016, the Clinton email probe ran concurrently to the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. At least five of the key agents and officials in both investigations, some of whom worked on both cases, exchanged text messages expressing bias against Trump and support for Clinton. The nearly 600-page report doesn’t detail a single message in favor of Trump.
The lead agent in both investigations, Peter Strzok, exchanged text messages with his mistress, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, showing extreme bias in favor of Clinton. At one point, Strzok reassured Page that he would stop Trump from becoming president.
The details of the leak culture within the bureau appear to have caught the attention of the president, who has repeatedly called out Strzok, Comey, and the bureau employees he calls Comey’s “band of thieves.”
“Why was the FBI giving so much information to the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote on Twitter on June 17. “They are not supposed to be doing that, and knowing the enemy of the people Fake News, they put their own spin on it—truth doesn’t matter to them!”
Why was the FBI giving so much information to the Fake News Media. They are not supposed to be doing that, and knowing the enemy of the people Fake News, they put their own spin on it – truth doesn’t matter to them!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2018
The inspector general also expressed grave concern with the leak culture, saying the unauthorized disclosures were harmful and led to fear of leaks within the bureau that in turn impacted decisionmaking at the top levels. An attachment to the report shows that some reporters were in contact with more than a dozen FBI employees, including executives. The watchdog noted ongoing separate investigations into unauthorized media contacts and cases in which employees accepted improper gifts. The outcomes of these probes will appear in future reports.
“We have profound concerns about the volume and extent of unauthorized media contacts by FBI personnel that we have uncovered during our review,” the report states.
The inspector general’s report was released just a week after the FBI indicted the former head of security for the Senate intelligence committee for lying to investigators who were probing illegal leaks. The indictment shows that the senior staffer was in regular touch with several reporters and had a yearslong extramarital affair with one of them. The pair exchanged thousands of messages.
Describing his decision to publicly reopen the investigation into Clinton less than two weeks before the election, Comey said his decision was not motivated by the fear that news of the probe would leak otherwise. But at least five FBI officials, including Page, Strzok, and Comey’s chief of staff, Jim Rybicki, said that fear that the information would leak did play a role in the decision.
“We were quite confident that … somebody is going to leak this fact, that we have all these emails,” FBI General Counsel James Baker told the inspector general. “That, if we don’t put out a letter, somebody is going to leak it. That definitely was discussed.”
The FBI’s second-highest ranking official, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, was fired earlier this year for allegedly authorizing a self-serving leak and lying about it on several occasions, including under oath.
McCabe instructed his subordinates to leak to The Wall Street Journal about the investigation into the Clinton Foundation when his ties to the Clintons were putting his work in Clinton-linked investigations in question. McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe, received an almost $500,000 campaign donation from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton ally.