The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inspector general finds ‘widespread’ problems in FBI’s FISA applications

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray speaks with the House Committee on the Judiciary on June 10 in Washington, D.C.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray speaks with the House Committee on the Judiciary on June 10 in Washington, D.C. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

An inquiry into how the FBI handles some of its most sensitive surveillance work found “widespread” failure to follow one of the key rules in the program, according to a report issued Thursday by the Justice Department inspector general.

The findings grew out of an earlier probe of how the FBI investigated the Trump campaign for possible ties to Russia in the 2016 election. Those findings, released in 2019, found more than a dozen major errors or omissions with the surveillance application targeting a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz then went on to look at other applications to the classified court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to handle the most sensitive national security cases.

Last year, Horowitz released initial findings that within the 29 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications reviewed, there were 209 errors, four of which the Justice Department deemed material to the investigations.

FBI’s surveillance problems extended far beyond Trump probe, inspector general says

Horowitz’s new findings suggest that the missteps in the Page investigation were not the result of anti-Trump scheming within the FBI, but part of a broader pattern of failure by agents to adhere to their own standards on a wide variety of espionage and terrorism cases.

The FBI said in a statement that it appreciates the inspector general’s “determined focus on the FBI’s FISA process, especially given the significant changes and policy enhancements that we have worked to make in concert with, and in many instances, prior to the issuance of this most recent OIG Audit Report.” The FBI fully accepts the inspector general’s recommendations, has already adopted half of them and is working on the rest, the statement said.

The report issued Wednesday examined thousands of other applications to the FISA court and found similar problems in a time period ranging from 2015 to early 2020.

Horowitz focused in particular on what FBI officials call the “Woods file” — a document meant to ensure the accuracy of all statements made to the FISA court. The file contains the supporting documentation for every factual assertion in a court application, as well as the result of government database searches and information about informants used in the case.

FBI says problems found in FISA applications were small

Of the more than 7,000 FISA applications reviewed, the inspector general found that in 183 cases — about 2.6 percent — the Woods file was either partially or completely missing.

“The widespread Woods Procedures non-compliance that we identified in this audit raises serious questions about the adequacy and execution of the supervisory review process in place at the time of the applications we reviewed,” the inspector general concluded, noting that the FBI’s own internal quality-control measures seem to have missed many of these problems.

Acting assistant attorney general Mark Lesko said the Justice Department “remains dedicated to ensuring that all applications” to the FISA court “meet the highest standards of accuracy. I look forward to continuing to strengthen the Division’s oversight efforts and to supporting the FBI as it continues to implement improvements to this process.”

As part of Horowitz’s inquiry, a closer look at the original 29 FISA applications found “over 400 instances of non-compliance with the Woods Procedures.” FBI and Justice Department officials have told the court that in many instances those errors were typos or similarly small mistakes, far less significant than a missing or incomplete file.