The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion CNN lands an interview with its own contributor

Witnesses, including then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, testify in the Senate Hart Building in May 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Fourth in a series on the media’s handling of the Steele dossier. Read the rest of the series here.

An exceptional bureaucratic moment occurred in Washington on Tuesday. The presiding judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Rosemary Collyer, ripped the FBI over the findings in the recent report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. The conduct of the agency in seeking FISA warrants to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, wrote Collyer, was “antithetical to the heightened duty of candor” required in the process.

Then an exceptional TV moment ensued. Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe appeared on CNN’s “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer. “Then-FBI Director Jim Comey — he says it was sloppiness. But this wasn’t just sloppiness. These were brutal mistakes, deliberate errors, concealments involving search warrant surveillance activities of an American citizen,” said Blitzer to one of the top FBI officials who oversaw the Page FISA warrants.

“They were very, very serious mistakes,” said McCabe, who said Horowitz “found no evidence that those misrepresentations were intentional. Nevertheless, they are unbelievably serious and something that has obviously gotten the court’s attention, as you would expect.”

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How did CNN nail this riveting interview with a former FBI official at the center of the Horowitz report? Well, as CNN disclosed at the top of the interview, McCabe is a CNN contributor. Meaning, the network essentially paid for the exclusive.

Announcement of McCabe’s contributor deal with CNN came in late August, just days before news reports indicating that prosecutors were approaching a decision on whether to indict him in connection with another Justice Department inspector general’s report — this one from February 2018 regarding McCabe’s actions in an FBI disclosure in 2016 to then-Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett. On four occasions, the IG report found, McCabe “lacked candor” in his discussions with investigators. That’s a bureaucratic term for lying.

The possibility of an indictment continues to hang over McCabe, though Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes points out that such a prosecutorial step would depart from precedent.

Grilling former bureaucrats on their shortcomings makes for good television. “I was wrong,” admitted former FBI director James B. Comey on “Fox News Sunday” regarding the findings of the Horowitz report. The Blitzer-McCabe clash, too, earned its share of attention. On Dec. 12, CNN “New Day” hosts John Berman and Alisyn Camerota did a superlative job of pushing McCabe on the nitty-gritty of the Horowitz report. Per his contract as a CNN contributor, McCabe hasn’t done any non-CNN broadcast interviews since the Horowitz report surfaced, according to a spokeswoman.

So we’re not arguing here that CNN’s anchors are going easy on McCabe because he’s a colleague — just that the underlying arrangement is offensive, awkward and corrupting.

A career in law enforcement prepared McCabe well for glitzy television appearances. He speaks clearly, sits straight up and projects confidence and precision. He’s also skilled at representing his own work: His point about no intentional wrongdoing is correct, but it’s incomplete. The report itself says, “While we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence of intentional misconduct on the part of the case agents who assisted OI in preparing the applications, or the agents and supervisors who performed the Woods Procedures, we also did not receive satisfactory explanations for the errors or problems we identified.”

Bolding added to denote Horowitz’s skepticism. The report found that an FBI lawyer had altered an email in the FISA application process; U.S. Attorney John Durham is investigating the matter as a possible crime, according to The Post.

Over 400-plus pages, the Horowitz report demonstrates the “essential” role played by the dossier of former British intelligence official Christopher Steele in the FBI’s pursuit of surveillance warrants against Page. The agency continued using the document in its applications — there was an initial application and three renewals — even though its own investigative activities turned up doubts about its sources and reliability. From the report: “The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”

According to a book by the founders of research firm Fusion GPS — who commissioned the dossier — Steele believes that at least 70 percent of the document’s claims are correct.

Reflecting on the report’s conclusions, McCabe told Blitzer, “The biggest mistake we made. The biggest mistake, I think, is the process that was in place essentially left so much responsibility on the lowest level of FBI agents and supervisors involved in a process. Once those mistakes are baked in, they become very, very hard for the layers of oversight to uncover.”

It would be one thing if this were the end of McCabe’s dual role as a newsmaker and a CNN contributor. But it’s not. The investigation by Durham into the same set of official actions will eventually conclude with a bang or a whimper — and McCabe’s conduct will be a matter of public concern. There’s also McCabe’s ongoing lawsuit over his dismissal from the FBI and, again, the prospect of an indictment.

So what should CNN do? Send McCabe interview requests, not paychecks.

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple:

Part 1 of this series: 'The story stands’: McClatchy won’t back off its Michael Cohen-Prague reporting

Part 2: Horowitz report confirms John Solomon’s scoop on FBI ‘spreadsheet’ regarding Steele dossier

Part 3: ‘Disinformation’ claim ‘galls’ dossier author Christopher Steele

Part 5: Rachel Maddow rooted for the Steele dossier to be true. Then it fell apart.

Part 6: A much-cited defense of the Steele dossier has a problem

Part 7: ‘Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape’ — New York Times reporter talks Steele dossier, Horowitz report and more

Part 8: Dear CNN: What parts of the Steele dossier were corroborated?

Part 9: Come clean, CNN

Part 10: ‘So this is all about collusion’: An inventory of media remarks on the Steele dossier