The Guardian headline reads: “DOJ Internal watchdog report clears FBI of illegal surveillance of Trump adviser.”
If the report released Monday by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz constitutes a “clearing” of the FBI, never clear me of anything. Holy God, what a clown show the Trump-Russia investigation was.
Like the much-ballyhooed report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Horowitz report is a Rorschach test, in which partisans will find what they want to find.
Much of the press is concentrating on Horowitz’s conclusion that there was no evidence of “political bias or improper motivation” in the FBI’s probe of Donald Trump’s Russia contacts, an investigation Horowitz says the bureau had “authorized purpose” to conduct.
Horowitz uses phrases like “serious performance failures,” describing his 416-page catalogue of errors and manipulations as incompetence rather than corruption. This throws water on the notion that the Trump investigation was a vast frame-up.
However, Horowitz describes at great length an FBI whose “serious” procedural problems and omissions of “significant information” in pursuit of surveillance authority all fell in the direction of expanding the unprecedented investigation of a presidential candidate (later, a president).
Officials on the “Crossfire Hurricane” Trump-Russia investigators went to extraordinary, almost comical lengths to seek surveillance authority of figures like Trump aide Carter Page. In one episode, an FBI attorney inserted the words “not a source” in an email he’d received from another government agency. This disguised the fact that Page had been an informant for that agency, and had dutifully told the government in real time about being approached by Russian intelligence. The attorney then passed on the email to an FBI supervisory special agent, who signed a FISA warrant application on Page that held those Russian contacts against Page, without disclosing his informant role.
Likewise, the use of reports by ex-spy/campaign researcher Christopher Steele in pursuit of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authority had far-reaching ramifications.
Not only did obtaining a FISA warrant allow authorities a window into other Trump figures with whom Page communicated, they led to a slew of leaked “bombshell” news stories that advanced many public misconceptions, including that a court had ruled there was “probable cause” that a Trump figure was an “agent of a foreign power.”
There are too many to list in one column, but the Horowitz report show years of breathless headlines were wrong. Some key points:
The so-called “Steele dossier” was, actually, crucial to the FBI’s decision to seek secret surveillance of Page.
Press figures have derided the idea that Steele was crucial to the FISA application, with some insisting it was only a “small part” of the application. Horowitz is clear:
We determined that the Crossfire Hurricane team’s receipt of Steele’s election reporting on September 19, 2016 played a central and essential role in the FBI’s and Department’s decision to seek the FISA order.
The report describes how, prior to receiving Steele’s reports, the FBI General Counsel (OGC) and/or the National Security Division’s Office of Intelligence (OI) wouldn’t budge on seeking FISA authority. But after getting the reports, the OGC unit chief said, “receipt of the Steele reporting changed her mind on whether they could establish probable cause.”
Meanwhile, the OI unit chief said Steele’s reports were “what kind of pushed it over the line.” There’s no FISA warrant without Steele.
Horowitz ratifies the oft-denounced “Nunes memo.”
Democrats are not going to want to hear this, since conventional wisdom says former House Intelligence chief Devin Nunes is a conspiratorial evildoer, but the Horowitz report ratifies the major claims of the infamous “Nunes memo.”
As noted, Horowitz establishes that the Steele report was crucial to the FISA process, even using the same language Nunes used (“essential”). He also confirms the Nunes assertion that the FBI double-dipped in citing both Steele and a September 23, 2016 Yahoo! news story using Steele as an unnamed source. Horowitz listed the idea that Steele did not directly provide information to the press as one of seven significant “inaccuracies or omissions” in the first FISA application.
Horowitz also verifies the claim that Steele was “closed for cause” for talking to the media, i.e. officially cut off as a confidential human source to the FBI. He shows that Steele continued to talk to Justice Official Bruce Ohr before and after Steele’s formal relationship with the FBI ended. His report confirms that the Steele information had not been corroborated when the FISA application was submitted, another key Nunes point.
There was gnashing of teeth when Nunes first released his memo in January, 2018. The press universally crapped on his letter, with a Washington Post piece calling it a “joke” and a “sham.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slammed Nunes for the release of a “bogus” document, while New York Senator Chuck Schumer said the memo was intended to “sow conspiracy theories and attack the integrity of federal law enforcement.” Many called for his removal as Committee chair.
The Horowitz report says all of that caterwauling was off-base. It also undercuts many of the assertions made in a ballyhooed response letter by Nunes counterpart Adam Schiff, who described the FBI’s “reasonable basis” for deeming Steele credible. The report is especially hostile to Schiff’s claim that the FBI “provided additional information obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting.”
In fact, far from confirming the Steele material, the FBI over time seems mainly to have uncovered more and more reasons to run screaming from Steele, to wit:
The “Steele dossier” was “Internet rumor,” and corroboration for the pee tape story was “zero.”
The Steele report reads like a pile of rumors surrounded by public information pulled off the Internet, and the Horowitz report does nothing to dispel this notion.
At the time the FBI submitted its first FISA application, Horowitz writes, it had “corroborated limited information in Steele’s election reporting, and most of that was publicly available information.” Horowitz says of Steele’s reports: “The CIA viewed it as ‘internet rumor.’”
Worse (and this part of the story should be tattooed on the heads of Russia truthers), the FBI’s interviews of Steele’s sources revealed Steele embellished the most explosive parts of his report.
The “pee tape” story, which inspired countless grave headlines (see this chin-scratching New York Times history of Russian “sexual blackmail”) and plunged the Trump presidency into crisis before it began, was, this source said, based a “conversation that [he/she] had over beers,” with the sexual allegations made… in “jest”!
Steele in his report said the story had been “confirmed” by senior, Western hotel staff, but the actual source said it was all “rumor and speculation,” never confirmed. In fact, charged by Steele to find corroboration, the source could not: corroboration was “zero,” writes Horowitz.
Meanwhile the Steele assertions that Russians had a kompromat file on Hillary Clinton, and that there was a “well-developed conspiracy of coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russians, relied on a source Steele himself disparaged as an “egoist” and “boaster” who “may engage in some embellishment.” This was known to the FBI at the start, yet they naturally failed to include this info in the warrant application, one of what Horowitz described as “17 significant errors or omissions” in the FISA application.
Finally, when the FBI conducted an investigation into Steele’s “work-related performance,” they heard from some that he was “smart,” and a “person of integrity,” and “if he reported it, he believed it.”
So far, so good. But Horowitz also wrote:
Their notes stated: “[d]emonstrates lack of self-awareness, poor judgment;” “[k]een to help” but “underpinned by poor judgment;” “Judgment: pursuing people with political risk but no intel value;” “[d]idn’t always exercise great judgment- sometimes [he] believes he knows best;” and “[r]eporting in good faith, but not clear what he would have done to validate.”
The Crossfire Hurricane team got all of this, but, again, didn’t pass it upstairs or include any of it in its warrant application.
I’ve written about how reporters used sleight of hand to get the Steele dossier into print without putting it through a vetting process. What Horowitz describes is worse: a story about bad journalism piled on bad journalism, balanced on a third layer of wrong reporting.
Steele in his “reports” embellished his sources’ quotes, played up nonexistent angles, invented attributions, and ignored inconsistencies. The FBI then transplanted this bad reporting in the form of a warrant application and an addendum to the Intelligence Assessment that included the Steele material, ignoring a new layer of inconsistencies and red flags its analysts uncovered in the review process.
Then, following a series of leaks, the news media essentially reported on the FBI’s wrong reporting of Steele’s wrong reporting.
The impact was greater than just securing a warrant to monitor Page. More significant were the years of headlines that grew out of this process, beginning with the leaking of the meeting with Trump about Steele’s blackmail allegations, the insertion of Steele’s conclusions in the Intelligence Assessment about Russian interference, and the leak of news about the approval of the Page FISA warrant.
As a result, a “well-developed conspiracy” theory based on a report that Comey described as “salacious and unverified material that a responsible journalist wouldn’t report without corroborating,” became the driving news story in a superpower nation for two years. Even the New York Times, which published a lot of these stories, is in the wake of the Horowitz report noting Steele’s role in “unleashing a flood of speculation in the news media about the new president’s relationship with Russia.”
No matter what people think the political meaning of the Horowitz report might be, reporters who read it will know: Anybody who touched this nonsense in print should be embarrassed.