Did the inspector general vindicate Comey — or Trump for firing him?
The long-awaited inspector general report on the FBI's probe of the 2016 election finally emerged this week. Unfortunately, the long-awaited reckoning with reality by both parties and the national media will have to wait a little longer. In the hyperpartisan environment surrounding the impeachment of President Trump, most mined IG Michael Horowitz' detailed and damning report for the few nuggets that bolstered their own point of view and conveniently overlooked the rest.
Predictably, Trump himself declared Horowitz' report showed that "they spied on my campaign," even though the report noted that the FBI had not used confidential human resources on his campaign. FBI director Christopher Wray told ABC News that the report vindicated the FBI from political bias and only reflected "serious performance failures" by a few investigators, while Horowitz explicitly laid blame for those failure all the way up the chain to senior FBI executives. The media reported that Horowitz had debunked Republican claims that the probe was politically motivated and that it had in fact vindicated the decision to launch the probe without noting that Horowitz had avoided reaching categorical conclusions on either point. "NO ANTI-TRUMP PLOT" read the chryon for Wray's interview at ABC, for instance.
No case of this blinkered approach was as dramatic as that of former FBI Director James Comey, however. Within hours of the report's publication, Comey declared his personal vindication in a Washington Post op-ed. Horowitz' report, Comey wrote, showed "that the allegation of a criminal conspiracy was nonsense. There was no illegal wiretapping, there were no informants inserted into the campaign, there was no 'spying' on the Trump campaign."
Comey did nod toward the report's determination of "mistakes" in the process of getting a FISA warrant for surveillance of Carter Page. "That's always unfortunate," Comey allowed, "but human beings make mistakes." The report, therefore, "offer[s] a chance to learn." Furthermore, Comey continued, Horowitz concluded that "the investigation was opened and conducted according to the rules," and that "those who smeared the FBI are due for an accounting." Comey then made an appearance on MSNBC to claim his leadership had been vindicated.
Not surprisingly, Michael Horowitz reads his report quite differently. After watching everyone else speak for his report since its release on Monday, the inspector general made an appearance at the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions. When asked by chair Lindsey Graham whether Comey was justified in seeing these conclusions as a vindication for himself and the investigation known as Operation Crossfire Hurricane, Horowitz pithily shot down the idea. "I think the activities we found here don't vindicate anybody who touched this," Horowitz told the panel.
Anyone who read the report in detail would have wondered what Comey had read in its place. Where Comey referred blithely to 17 "mistakes" in the Page warrant application and renewals, Horowitz identifies matters much graver than typos. There were "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."
One particularly galling omission was a failure to notify the FISA court of information the FBI received from "another agency" that Page was in fact their intelligence asset on Russia, and considered to be reliable. Not only was this known to FBI investigators and managers, they relied on Page's work for the other agency as part of their cause to seek surveillance of Page. At the same time, the FBI had already determined the Christopher Steele "dossier" on Trump not only couldn't be corroborated but in fact conflicted with information developed in the investigation. And yet the FBI never bothered to inform the court of these issues, essentially cooking up a case for surveilling Page.
Horowitz concluded that the FBI's senior management had enough knowledge of the situation that it "should have resulted in questions being raised regarding the reliability of the Steele reporting and the probable cause supporting the FISA applications, but did not." That failure did not only reflect incompetence or worse by the investigators, but "of the managers and supervisors, including senior officials, in the chain of command." That followed on the heels of Horowitz' systematic criticism of Comey's leadership in the Hillary Clinton investigation published 17 months earlier.
And what about the claim that political bias didn't drive these "errors"? Horowitz corrected that misperception in his Senate Judiciary testimony as well. All he found was that there was "no evidence" of political bias. When asked whether he could say the FISA court misrepresentations weren't the result of political bias, Horowitz responded, "I don't know."
The impact of Horowitz' findings go well beyond the Trump presidency, and well beyond the typical partisan warfare in the Beltway too. Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 as a reform to curtail political intrigue under the guise of domestic counterintelligence operations by the FBI. The country had been shocked at the extent to which presidents and founding director J. Edgar Hoover had used that authority to conduct political surveillance on opposition groups. Recognizing the need for effective but accountable domestic counterintelligence and its occasional need to surveil U.S. citizens or legal residents, Congress passed FISA as a means to ensure that the FBI could only conduct those operations when probable cause exists for it.
As Horowitz points out in his report, those safeguards only work when the FBI and its leadership take the requirement for full honesty and disclosure to the FISA court seriously. The bureau requires its personnel to ensure that these warrant applications are "scrupulously accurate" to maintain confidence in the FBI's ability to prevent political abuse of its powers. Failure to do so resulting in intelligence operations aimed at innocent Americans risks revoking even the limited authority the FBI has under FISA to conduct such operations. A revocation based on such abuse would create critical gaps in national security, especially in an era dominated by non-state terror networks.
Given the explosive nature of an investigation into a major-party presidential campaign adviser, Horowitz concludes that James Comey and his senior team failed to take that responsibility seriously. Comey's op-ed sloughing these off as inadvertent "mistakes," including one in which an FBI lawyer altered documents to fraudulently support the warrant, corroborates Comey's lack of seriousness. Far from vindicating his leadership, Horowitz' report comes much closer to vindicating Comey's termination.
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