The 434-page report disputed long-held GOP claims that a “dossier” of salacious material originally commissioned by Democrats triggered the probe and that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign.
But the body of the report, issued by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, also raises questions about a memo released in 2018 by Democrats that defended four applications the FBI made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The report found 17 “significant errors or omissions” in the FISA applications, but the Democratic memo had asserted the FBI did not “abuse” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process or “omit material information.”
In response to the report, Republicans often falsely suggested that it confirmed what it actually disputed about the origin of the probe. If Democrats acknowledged the FISA abuses, they sidestepped their own role in suggesting the FBI had played it straight.
Here’s a guide to some of the more noteworthy reactions to the report.
“The IG report proves Obama officials abused their FISA power to trigger an investigation into @realDonaldTrump’s campaign.”
— House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), in a tweet, Dec. 9, 2019
The report documents FISA abuse by the FBI, but Scalise twists this politically to claim it was at the hands of “Obama officials.” The report says many of the errors happened deep in the bureaucracy, though it faults senior officials for poor oversight. “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,” the inspector general concluded, that there was a failure of “not only the operational team, but also of the managers and supervisors, including senior officials, in the chain of command.”
The report also does not say the FISA abuse triggered the investigation, or that Obama officials opened it. The report says the counterintelligence investigation, known internally as Crossfire Hurricane, was opened after receipt of information from a “Friendly Foreign Government” (Australia). A diplomat for that country was told by Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos that “the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).”
The report said: “This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring.” The report added that investigators found no “evidence that political bias or improper motivation” influenced the decision to open the probe.
Lauren Fine, communications director for Scalise, pointed to a statement by John Durham, a prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr to further investigate the origins of the probe: “We do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”
“The mainstream media cannot dispute this fact: Comey’s FBI repeatedly misled the FISA court and omitted key facts about the phony Steele Dossier, which launched the 2-year, $35M Russia investigation.”
— Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, in a tweet, Dec. 9
This is a tricky tweet. The use of “which” also suggests the dossier assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele triggered the investigation, rather than Papadopoulos’s loose lips. That would support the previous, now-debunked narrative.
But, as noted, the report did document how key facts about the dossier were not disclosed. “We identified multiple instances in which factual assertions relied upon in the first FISA application were inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation, based upon information the FBI had in its possession at the time the application was filed,” the report said, adding that the omissions “made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.”
For instance, the FBI failed to disclose that Page had been approved as an “operational contact” with another agency (Page has said this is the CIA) and that he had disclosed his contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers. Moreover, the FBI appeared to use these contacts as evidence against him in seeking a court order to conduct surveillance.
McDaniel also pins the failure on “Comey’s FBI,” referring to FBI Director James B. Comey, who was fired by Trump on May 9, 2017. The FISA application to monitor Page was renewed at least once, in June 2017, after Comey was fired.
Steve Guest, an RNC spokesman, defended the tweet by pointing to this line in the report: “We found that the FBI did not have information corroborating the specific allegations against Carter Page in Steele’s reporting when it relied upon his reports in the first FISA application or subsequent renewal applications.”
“The report, actually — and especially when you look into it, and the details of the report — are far worse than anything I would have even imagined. … This was an overthrow of government. This was an attempted overthrow. And a lot of people who were in on it, and they got caught. They got caught red-handed.”
— President Trump, remarks to reporters, Dec. 9
Trump sticks with his conspiracy theories. There is nothing in the report that supports “an overthrow of government.” In fact, as we noted, the IG found that political bias did not factor into the start of the probe. He even turned up text messages of FBI agents hoping Trump would beat Hillary Clinton. In many ways, the IG report would have been disappointing to Trump, yet he gamely suggests it’s even worse than he expected.
“The incumbent government used the apparatus of the state, principally the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies, both to spy on political opponents, but also to use them in a way that could affect the outcome of the election.”
— Attorney General William P. Barr, in an interview on MSNBC, Dec. 10
Barr, in an interview, dismissed the findings of no political bias but embraced the findings of what he called “gross abuses” of the FISA process. Without evidence, he also sought to suggest this was an operation directed by the “incumbent government,” i.e. the Obama administration, to “spy on political opponents.”
The IG report did not find any White House briefings on Crossfire Hurricane or even that Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch was aware of it. “The Crossfire Hurricane team told us that the proposal for FISA coverage targeting Carter Page originated from the team, not an instruction from management,” the report said.
The IG report, in a heavily redacted footnote, suggests there were limits on the surveillance of Page, who had left the campaign by the time the first FISA application was approved. The footnote references “two incidents in which the FBI failed to comply with the Standard Minimization Procedures,” though the details are redacted.
“All of the witnesses we interviewed told the OIG that the FBI did not try to recruit members of the Trump campaign as [Confidential Human Sources], did not send CHSs to collect information in Trump campaign headquarters or Trump campaign spaces, and did not ask CHSs to join the Trump campaign or otherwise attend campaign related events as part of the investigation,” the report said. The report quotes one official, Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI counterintelligence division, as saying the investigation “was about a foreign adversary trying to mess with our free and fair election system. We wanted to know if any U.S. persons assisted in any way. In no way was it an investigation into … the political process. … [I]t’s not the FBI’s role in any way to try to monitor or … investigate campaigns.”
As for affecting the outcome of the election, it’s noteworthy that details of the investigation into the Trump campaign did not leak, in contrast to investigations into Clinton. Before the election, the New York Times even ran an article titled “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”
“The IG’s investigation did identify issues and errors in the FISA process, including potential misconduct.”
— House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), in a statement, Dec. 9
Schiff accepts the problems identified in the report but does not acknowledge his prior role in casting doubt on such claims.
In early 2018, Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released dueling memos on the FBI’s FISA applications. The GOP memo, often called the Nunes memo and titled “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Abuses at the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said that “material and relevant information was omitted” from the applications, including that the dossier “formed an essential part” of the initial application and that there was “minimal” corroboration of the Steele reporting.
The Democratic memo argued that the GOP memo had omitted key details and twisted facts. “FBI and DOJ officials did not ‘abuse’ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” the Democratic memo said. “DOJ met the rigor, transparency, and evidentiary basis needed to meet FISA’s probable cause requirement.”
The Democratic memo also said the FBI made “only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources about Page’s specific activities in 2016” and that “senior FBI and DOJ officials have repeatedly affirmed to the Committee the reliability and credibility of Steele’s reporting.”
That sweeping language looks problematic in light of the IG report, which devotes page after page to the FBI’s reliance on the Steele reports, despite flaws known to officials. After release of the report, the ACLU issued a statement saying these were “significant problems that are alarming from a civil liberties perspective.”
In particular, the IG report makes clear that initial FISA application was set in motion once the FBI first obtained Steele’s reports. Previously, the request had been set aside, but Steele’s information renewed interest in surveillance and played “a central and essential role” in the decision to go forward. “The FISA request form drew almost entirely from Steele’s reporting in describing the factual basis to establish probable cause to believe that Page was an agent of a foreign power,” the report said, while not including information obtained from other sources that undercut Steele’s reporting.
Moreover, the report said “the FBI discovered discrepancies between Steele’s reporting and statements sub-sources made to the FBI, which raised doubts about the reliability of some of Steele’s reports.” For instance, one sub-source told the FBI that “he/she had not seen Steele’s reports until they became public that month, and that he/she made statements indicating that Steele misstated or exaggerated the Primary Sub-source’s statements in multiple sections of the reporting,” including reporting that salacious material about alleged sexual activities had been confirmed when he/she had told Steele it was only unconfirmed rumor and speculation.
“The IG’s report contains new information about how the Page FISA materials were assembled at the working levels of the Bureau, which HPSCI [the House Intelligence Committee] did not have access to previously,” Patrick Boland, spokesman for the committee, told The Fact Checker. “We are reviewing the report’s findings closely, including those potentially relevant to claims made in both the Democratic and Republican memos with respect to the Page FISA process.”
“The Democratic Memo was drafted on the basis of available information, to address the Nunes Memo. For all its criticisms of material omissions and intentional misconduct by the FBI and DOJ, the Nunes Memo itself omitted — and in key respects was directly contradicted by — significant information regarding Page and the FISA process which was then available to HPSCI and the Nunes Memo’s authors,” Boland added.
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