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Inspector general testifies on FBI failures: Five takeaways

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz delivered scathing testimony Wednesday about the FBI’s missteps in applying for a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser. 

Horowitz was grilled for nearly six hours by lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Republicans and Democrats using their time to advance competing narratives about the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. 

Here are five takeaways from the hearing on the inspector general’s inquiry. 

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It was a bad day for the FBI 

Horowitz’s testimony laid bare the extent of the breakdown in the FBI’s use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, a point Republicans repeatedly hammered.

“I think the activities we found don’t vindicate anybody who touched this,” Horowitz said at the outset of the hearing when asked whether his report “vindicated” former FBI Director James Comey.

The inspector general reported a total of 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the applications to monitor Page, taking particular issue with applications to renew the FISA warrant and chastising the FBI for a lack of satisfactory explanations for those mistakes.

“This has got to be fixed. At a minimum, somebody’s got to be fired,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said.

“There’s got to be a change in the culture, also,” Horowitz replied, seemingly agreeing with Kennedy’s assessment.

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Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) cautioned lawmakers and observers against interpreting the FBI’s handling of the probe as an otherwise solid investigation with “a few irregularities,” suggesting the bureau’s actions threatened to undermine the entire system.

The FBI got a reprieve from many Democratic lawmakers who expressed admiration for its work and sought to underscore Horowitz’s finding that the bureau was not influenced by political bias in launching its investigation.

But the fallout for the FBI could linger, particularly given President Trump’s rocky relationship with the bureau.

 

Hearing provides fodder for Trump, allies

Horowitz’s criticism of the FBI offered plenty of talking points for Trump and his defenders, some of whom have distorted the conclusions of the report to baselessly accuse agents of a politically motivated effort to investigate the Trump campaign. 

The inspector general turned up evidence that an FBI lawyer altered a document in connection with a renewal application for the Page warrant, a detail that Trump and Republicans have seized on. 

Horowitz reiterated that he found no testimonial or documentary evidence of political bias or other improper motivation driving the FBI’s decision to open the counterintelligence investigation — dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane” — into the Trump campaign and Russia. 

Horowitz also said that it was his conclusion that the investigation was adequately predicated. Those findings and other details of the report have undercut arguments made by Trump and his allies about the impropriety of the investigation.

But at the same time, Horowitz said that the explanations his office received from officials about the errors and omissions were not “satisfactory” and was careful about making a definitive statement about a lack of bias in the attorney’s actions with respect to the warrant. 

Republicans argued that the mistakes made during the course of the investigation were deliberate and malicious. 

“It may have started lawfully. It got off the rails quick,” Graham said. “It became a criminal conspiracy to defraud the FISA court, to put Mr. Page through hell, and to continue to surveil President Trump after he got elected. And I hope somebody pays a price for that.” 

 

Rare agreement for reform of the process 

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Republicans and Democrats appeared in agreement on one thing following Wednesday’s hearing: the need for changes to the FISA program to avoid the missteps Horowitz identified in his report.

“If the [FISA] court doesn’t take corrective action and do something about being manipulated and lied to, you will lose my support,” Graham said, adding that he would like to see more “checks and balances.”

A few Republicans directly apologized to Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), telling the national security hawk that they had not believed the FISA process could be so seriously abused and indicating an openness to changes.

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) also asked Horowitz about potential changes to the FISA program that could prevent future breakdowns in the application process, calling it “one of the only points” with bipartisan agreement.

“I’d welcome suggestions from FBI Director [Christopher] Wray … to ensure the errors we saw here in the Page process don’t happen again,” Coons said, adding there should be considerations for civil liberties as well.

Horowitz said the inspector general’s office does not make legislative recommendations to Congress, but instead would relay its suggestions within the Justice Department about how the FISA process could be improved.

 

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Horowitz resists political fight

The watchdog chose his words carefully throughout Wednesday’s appearance. 

He tiptoed around some of the more politically charged questions from members, seeking to avoid wading into debates about whether the president’s campaign was “spied” on and declining to speculate on matters beyond his report.

Horowitz declined to use the word “spying” despite its frequent use by Trump and Attorney General William Barr to describe FBI activities. Asked if it would be spying were the FISA warrants for Page unlawful, Horowitz hesitated before calling it “illegal” or “unlawful” surveillance. 

Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Horowitz declined to say specifically that his findings refuted allegations about a “deep state conspiracy” against Trump and his campaign, saying simply that the inquiry found “no bias” in the opening of the investigation.

Horowitz also declined to weigh in on Barr’s disagreement with his findings after the attorney general issued a statement Monday saying the investigation had been launched on the “thinnest” of suspicions.

“He’s free to have his opinion. We have our finding,” Horowitz said. 

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His effort to avoid political statements did not come as a surprise; Horowitz, a former assistant U.S. attorney, has been described as an independent voice and a straight shooter who seeks to stay away from politics. 

 

Spotlight on internal Justice Department disagreements 

Horowitz’s testimony offered new details about the daylight between him and some top Justice Department officials over his finding that the investigation was adequately predicated. 

Horowitz said he was “surprised” by the decision by John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut leading a separate Russia inquiry, to issue a statement Monday disagreeing with his finding as to the opening of the FBI’s investigation.

He also said he met with Durham in November to discuss his findings, at which point Durham told Horowitz he believed the FBI would have been justified in opening a “preliminary investigation,” but not a full one.

“He said that he did not necessarily agree with our conclusion about the opening of a full counterintelligence investigation, which is what this was,” Horowitz recalled. 

“But … [Durham] said during the meeting that the information from the friendly foreign government was, in his view, sufficient to support the preliminary investigation,” he continued, referring to information received about comments made former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. 

Horowitz also said he communicated with Barr, who also disagreed with the conclusion as to the predicate, before the report’s release.

“None of the discussions changed our findings here,” Horowitz said.

Barr elaborated on his opinions during an NBC News interview Tuesday, calling the FBI’s case “flimsy” and saying the steps taken were not justified by the evidence.

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