The FBI report reveals something far more alarming than partisan skullduggery
The report released on Monday afternoon by the inspector general of the Department of Justice on the origin of what we have all come to think of as "the Russia thing" runs to some 200,000 words. It is a long, carefully prepared document that can't be easily spun by either Republicans or Democrats. It demands patient reading and long, careful study. (Whether it will receive them is another question.)
Even a cursory glance at the report shows us that President Trump has oversold its contents, surprising no one in his lunatic assertion of a plot by the Obama administration and the FBI to destroy his presidency from within before he was even elected. It has, thank goodness, revealed nothing of the kind.
But, in a sense that is different from but not entirely unrelated to the one meant by the president, the report is still damning to the American intelligence community. What the document shows is not cheap partisan skullduggery, but something more alarming: total incompetence.
One claim made repeatedly by Trump and his allies that the report effectively disproves is that that the four individuals involved in the president's 2016 campaign were subjected to surveillance solely on the basis of the so-called "Steele dossier" prepared by the consulting firm Fusion GPS with help from its then-employee, the former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. While the dossier was indeed cited over and over again during the course of the investigation, it was not the impetus for it. Its contents were taken as corroborative of a basic premise that was accepted on the basis of evidence much thinner than that which Fusion thought itself able to provide.
As chapter three of the report makes clear, the FBI was informed on July 28, 2016, that an official from a "friendly foreign government" had knowledge of a conversation in which Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos had "'suggested 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 candidate Clinton and President Obama." The aptly named Operation Crossfire Hurricane began three days later.
How certain were the officials charged with applying for warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of the soundness of their narrative? According to the report, in September 2019, Papadopoulos, while speaking unwittingly with a confidential intelligence source, stated that "to his knowledge, no one associated with the Trump campaign was collaborating with Russia or with outside groups like WikiLeaks in the release of emails." This was not a contradiction of what the foreign official had claimed — it was a clarification of it. It is completely possible that Russian assistance had been suggested and summarily rejected or even simply ignored. But Papadopoulos's comments, which, unlike the account from the foreign official, were monitored by investigators, did not find their way into the FISA application.
This is only one of countless examples of investigators making selective use of the facts available to them — eagerly playing up the importance of, for example, Steele's previous relationship with the FBI. The FISA application referred to Steele as a "reliable source, whose previous reporting to the FBI has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings"; in fact, per the report, Steele's "reporting had never been used in a criminal proceeding." Elsewhere we see the FBI willfully ignoring unambiguous statements from Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, who said that he had never met or spoken with Paul Manafort, Trump's sometime campaign chairman, or even gotten a response to the emails he had sent him.
The inspector general says that these and other errors of omission are not evidence of "political bias." I have no reason to think Michael Horowitz's assessment is incorrect. He also insists that on the basis of the available evidence the investigation was lawful, though poorly handled. This does not mean that our response to the report should be sanguine. It would be one thing to believe that a handful of bad apples with partisan motivations misled the intelligence community and the courts in order to subject a political campaign to surveillance. Instead, what seems to have happened is even more terrifying. With no ill will whatever, acting with the best of intentions, the relevant authorities approved an error-ridden surveillance application grounded in little more than rumor and hearsay from a "friendly foreign government" and some hastily digested material from a former foreign intelligence official paid by a rival campaign. This is apparently all the law requires for the FBI to take a hand in American presidential elections.
This is incompetence on an almost indescribable scale. It has nothing to do with Trump versus Clinton or Obama's Justice Department. It has everything to do with the long, embarrassing history of misapprehension, blunder, and wishful thinking that has characterized our intelligence services for the last two decades. It was, after all, the so-called "September Dossier" released by Tony Blair's British government that provided the supposed evidence of weapons of mass destruction which eventually led to the invasion of Iraq. This information was accepted uncritically by America's own intelligence community and repeated by George W. Bush during his state of the union address in 2003. By the end of the month, every major organ of opinion in this country — from the New York Times to National Review — echoed the reports of uranium from Niger. The result was the most disastrous, ill-conceived war in the history of the American republic.
The very agencies we depend upon to keep us safe from foreign interference in our political affairs are more responsible than anyone else for the success of such meddling, ill-intended or otherwise. There are millions of rumors — only the most lurid and fantastical ever seem to be worthy of universal acceptance in Quantico and Langley. This, not Trump's raving, is the lesson we should be taking away from the inspector general's report.
Yes, Virginia, there is a deep state, and it serves no candidate or cause save that of its own perpetuation and it is accountable to no one despite, indeed perhaps even because of its repeated failures.