Watchdog report: FBI’s Trump-Russia probe justified, no bias

(Jacquelyn Martin | AP) FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, in Washington. Wray says the problems found by the Justice Department watchdog examining the origins of the Russia probe are “unacceptable."

Washington • The FBI was justified in opening its investigation into ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia and did not act with political bias, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog declared Monday, undercutting President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that he has been the target of a “witch hunt.”

The long-awaited report rejected theories and criticism spread by Trump and his supporters, though it also found “serious performance failures” up the bureau’s chain of command that Republicans are citing as evidence that Trump was targeted by an unfair investigation.

The affirmation of the investigation’s legitimacy, balanced by criticism of the way it was conducted, ensured that partisan battles would persist over one of the most politically sensitive investigations in FBI history. Another review of the origins of the probe continues, and the prosecutor picked by Attorney General William Barr to lead that effort hinted Monday he’ll take a harder view of the FBI’s actions.

Monday’s review by Inspector General Michael Horowitz knocked down multiple lines of attack against the Russia investigation, finding that it was properly opened and that law enforcement leaders were not motivated by political bias. Contrary to the claims of Trump and other critics, it said that opposition research compiled by an ex-British spy named Christopher Steele had no bearing on the decision to open the investigation known as Crossfire Hurricane. And it rejected allegations that a former Trump campaign aide at the center of the probe was set up by the FBI.

It found that the FBI had an “authorized purpose” when it opened its investigation in July 2016 into whether the Trump campaign was coordinating with Russia to tip the election in his favor. The report said the FBI had cause to investigate a potential national security threat.

FBI Director Chris Wray, in an interview with The Associated Press, noted that the report did not find political bias but that it did identify problems that are “unacceptable and unrepresentative of who we are as an institution.”

The FBI is implementing more than 40 actions aimed at fixing some of the bureau's most fundamental operations, such as applying for surveillance warrants and interacting with confidential sources.

Those changes are in response to some of the report’s criticisms. They largely centered on how law enforcement officials set about eavesdropping on a former Trump campaign aide who they said they feared was being targeted for Russian government recruitment.

The inspector general identified 17 “significant inaccuracies or omissions” in applications for a warrant and later renewals from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The watchdog found that the FBI had overstated the significance of Steele’s past work as an informant and omitted information about one of his sources who he said “may engage in some embellishment.” Those errors, the report said, resulted in “applications that made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.”

Republicans have long criticized the process since the FBI relied in part on opposition research from Steele, whose work was financed by Democrats and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and that fact was not disclosed to the judges who approved the warrant.

Though the surveillance has been central to Republican objections about the investigation, the eavesdropping was not necessarily central to the probe itself — which had been underway for months before the warrant was sought.

The report also details that the FBI used an informant to set up and record a September 2016 meeting with a high-level Trump campaign official. The official wasn’t identified by name, but was not a subject of the Russia investigation, the report said. While the information collected wasn’t used during the Russia probe, it does lend support to the assertions by Trump and Barr that the Trump campaign was spied upon.

The document’s release, coming as a House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing centers on the president’s interactions with Ukraine, brought fresh attention to the legal and political investigations that have entangled the White House from the moment Trump took office.

Political divisions were evident in responses to the report.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said it makes clear that the basis for the FBI’s investigation was “valid and without political bias.”

Trump, in remarks at the White House, claimed it showed “an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it.”

The president has repeatedly said he is more eager for the report of John Durham, the prosecutor Barr selected to investigate how intelligence was gathered. Both Barr and Durham issued statements disputing the inspector general’s conclusion that there was sufficient evidence to open the FBI investigation. The attorney general’s reaction was especially unusual in that the head of the Justice Department typically would not take issue with an internal investigation that clears a department agency of serious misconduct.

“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,” Barr said in a statement.

Durham, in a brief statement, said he had informed Horowitz that he also didn’t agree with the conclusion that the inquiry was properly opened, and suggested his own investigation would back up his disagreement.

The FBI’s Russia investigation, which was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller, began in July 2016 after the FBI learned that a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had been saying before it was publicly known that Russia had dirt on Democratic opponent Clinton in the form of stolen emails. Those emails, which were hacked from Democratic email accounts by Russian intelligence, were released by WikiLeaks before the election in what U.S. officials have said was an effort to harm Clinton’s campaign and help Trump.

The report concluded that that revelation was a sufficient basis for opening the investigation. It knocked down claims by Papadopoulos that he was set up by the FBI or that the professor who told him about the hacked emails was an FBI informant.

Months later, the FBI sought and received the Page warrant. Officials were concerned that Page was being targeted for recruitment by the Russian government, though he has denied wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.

The inspector general also found that an FBI lawyer is suspected of altering an email to make it appear that an official at another government agency had said Page was not a source for that agency, even though he was.

Agents were concerned that if Page had worked as a source for another government agency, the FBI would have needed to tell the surveillance court about that, the report said, and contacted the other agency to obtain additional information. But the FBI lawyer “did not accurately convey, and in fact altered, the information he received from the other agency.”

The lawyer is not identified by name in the report, but people familiar with the situation have said he is Kevin Clinesmith. The inspector general’s report said officials notified the attorney general and FBI director and provided them with information about the altered email.

The inspector general conducted more than 170 interviews involving more than 100 witnesses.

Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick, Jonathan Lemire and Colleen Long contributed to this report.