FBI officials made “serious performance failures” when they sought legal authorization to surveil a former Trump campaign official, according to the Justice Department’s top watchdog.
But the inspector general found no documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias informed the FBI’s decision to start investigating people linked to the Trump campaign. The report also concluded that the FBI had sufficient evidence to launch its counterintelligence probe of Trump associates.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz found “at least 17 significant errors or omissions” in the FBI’s applications to surveil ex-Trump adviser Carter Page, he wrote in the long-awaited report released Monday.
The problems with the efforts to secure authorization were so concerning that Horowitz is opening a new audit looking at how the FBI obtains authorizations from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to surveil Americans.
“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI, and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management,” the report said.
The report also found that a confidential human source working for the FBI recorded a conversation with a high-level Trump campaign official during the election season. That official “was not a subject of the investigation,” the report noted.
The report also said that the inspector found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” influenced FBI decisions to open investigations of Trump campaign associates, to use confidential sources interact with them, and to seek authority to surveil Page.
Despite that, the finding about the surveillance authorization will likely cheer Trump and his allies, who have long argued that the FBI abused its power in investigating people linked to his 2016 presidential campaign. Attorney General Bill Barr praised the investigation but appeared to dispute one of its conclusions.
“The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” the attorney general said in a statement. “It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory. Nevertheless, the investigation and surveillance was pushed forward for the duration of the campaign and deep into President Trump’s administration.”
Horowitz announced on March 28, 2018, that he was launching a review to scrutinize DOJ and FBI compliance with legal and procedural requirements when seeking authorization to surveil “a certain U.S. person.” His announcement also said he would scrutinize the FBI’s relationship with an “alleged source.”
The U.S. person is known to be Page, who served as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign for a brief period. The surveillance began after he parted ways with the campaign. And the alleged source is Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who wrote a series of memos during the 2016 campaign about relationships between denizens of Trump World and Russian nationals. The Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid for Steele’s work through the research firm Fusion GPS.
The review generated fervid speculation from the president’s allies over the last 18 months, many of whom predicted the final report would show gross wrongdoing by the bureau.
Earlier this year, Barr told a Congressional committee that he believed the Intelligence Community may have spied on the Trump campaign.
“I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”
“I’m not suggesting that those rules were violated,” he continued, “but I think it’s important to look at that. I’m not talking about the FBI necessarily but intelligence agencies more broadly.”
The comments left American Intelligence officials distressed, as Barr appeared to be co-signing Trump’s claims that he was the victim of gross wrongdoing during the 2016 campaign.
The FBI began a counterintelligence investigation that included Trump World figures after an Australian diplomat alerted the FBI to a conversation he had with George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos, who had advised the campaign on foreign policy, had told the diplomat that the Kremlin had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Later in 2016, the FBI scrutinized Page, who at that point had departed Trump’s foreign policy team. Page had close connections with Russian nationals, and a federal court authorized the Justice Department to surveil his communications. That surveillance continued after Election Day and into the Trump administration. When seeking authorization to surveil Page, DOJ officials cited information from the Steele Dossier. Republicans have argued that the applications did not clearly state the source of that information, and that the surveillance of Page was a set-up.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller took over that counterintelligence investigation in May, 2017. His probe investigated Kremlin interference in the 2016 election and resulted in a host of indictments and convictions––including of Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and served a short prison sentence. Papadopoulos has since become a folk hero on the right.
During Mueller’s probe, Trump often railed against the investigation. He and his allies claimed the entire investigation was illegitimate.