WASHINGTON – Since his confirmation more than two years ago, FBI Director Christopher Wray has adopted a simple axiom for the embattled bureau.
“Keep calm; tackle hard,” he has repeatedly urged the agent-and-analyst ranks during some of the worst of political storms to batter the century-old institution.
From the foundation-shaking removal of Director James Comey in the midst of the Russia investigation to near-unceasing assaults on the bureau’s credibility by President Donald Trump himself, the journey has been fraught at best.
On Monday, it got worse.
The Justice Department’s inspector general offered a withering account of the FBI’s handling of multiple surveillance requests for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page during the early months of the Russia investigation. The report described a process as so dysfunctional as to call into question the protocol for taking such a crucial investigative step – wiretapping a campaign operative – in a case involving a presidential election.
“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked investigative teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels with the FBI…raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision” of the surveillance process, the report concluded.
Errors, no indication of bias
The inspector general referred to more than a dozen inaccuracies identified across three separate requests to monitor Page, who investigators then suspected may have been a Russian agent. More than that, the explosive report brought a new crisis of confidence to the threshold of FBI headquarters, threatening to to undercut another of the report’s key conclusions: despite the bureau’s missteps, the inspector general found that the overall investigation into Russian election interference was justified and free from bias against then-candidate Trump.
“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced (the FBI’s) decision to open Crossfire Hurricane,” the report found, noting the code-name for the early Russia inquiry. Nor was there evidence, according to the report, that the FBI had placed informants or undercover operatives inside the Trump campaign.
Yet allegations of surveillance abuses by the FBI have been a central theme in Trump’s attacks on the Russia inquiry, and shortly after the inspector general report’s release Monday, he stepped up his campaign, suggesting the findings pointed toward an “attempted overthrow” of the government.
“They fabricated evidence and they lied to the courts and they did all sorts of things to have it go their way,” Trump told reporters. “This was an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught.”
‘Attempted overthrow’:Trump claims DOJ inspector general report shows ‘attempted overthrow’ of the government
Attorney General William Barr, a strong defender of the president since concluding earlier this year that no obstruction charges were warranted following special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report, also has chosen to redirect a harsh spotlight on the FBI – disputing the inspector general’s contention that the Russia investigation was justified.
“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.
Durham inquiry ongoing
The attorney general’s words carried a decidedly ominous tone Monday. Not only is he the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, but he also is overseeing a parallel inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation that has shifted to a criminal probe and threatens even harsher consequences for those involved in the Russia inquiry.
“Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened,” said John Durham, the Connecticut federal prosecutor who is leading parallel criminal investigation.
Neither Barr nor Durham elaborated on the specific findings of their investigations.
But the inspector general leveled his harshest criticism at the FBI’s handling of the Page surveillance and the bureau’s reliance on supporting information provided by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.
Steele, hired by a research firm working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, authored the now-infamous “dossier” alleging salacious ties between Trump and Russia.
Among the most common errors identified in the wiretap applications for Page were the omission of important information, including some that contradicted investigators’ suspicions, much of it supplied by both Page and Steele.
In its wiretap applications, the FBI failed to note Page’s denial that he had been involved in revising a part of the Republican Party platform to be more favorable to Russia. The FBI didn’t include Page’s denials that he had talked to allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin about lifting sanctions against Russia and giving the Trump campaign damaging information about Clinton.
Christopher Steele information questioned
And the FBI omitted information about Steele’s credibility: that he had previously exercised “poor judgment;” that he had a history of pursuing people “with political risk but no intelligence value,” and that he did not want Trump to become president, the report said.
Read the full report:IG flags mistakes in Carter Page wiretap, but finds Russia probe was justified
In other cases, inaccurate information was included. The report found that the significance of Steele’s prior cooperation with U.S. authorities was “overstated,” adding that the FBI didn’t corroborate Steele’s account of Page’s dealings with Russians, but used the information in preparation of the surveillance applications.
The report also singled out Bruce Ohr, an associate deputy attorney general, for his extensive contacts with Steele even after the FBI had stopped using the former British agent as a source. The contacts, according to the inspector general, came at a time when Ohr’s wife worked for the firm that had hired Steele to do the work, creating a possible conflict of interest.
The inspector general concluded that Ohr “committed consequential errors” by failing to advise his supervisors that he was communicating with Steele and requesting meetings with FBI officials involved in the Russia investigation on matters that were “outside his areas of responsibility.”
Ohr’s conduct, as outlined in the report, has been referred for further review and possible criminal investigation by the inspector general.
The FBI, meanwhile, accepted the inspector general’s harshest criticisms, yet maintained that the Russia inquiry and related investigations were “opened…for an authorized purpose and with adequate factual predication.”
“There was no evidence that political bias or improper motivation impacted the opening of these investigations,” the bureau said in a statement. “There also was no evidence that political bias or improper motivation impacted the decisions to use certain investigative tools –such as (court-ordered) surveillance, human sources, and undercover employees – in the course of these investigations.”
The bureau did, however, acknowledge “several instances” in which FBI personnel “did not comply with existing policies, neglected to exercise appropriate diligence, or otherwise failed to meet the standard of conduct we expect from ourselves.”
FBI defends its brand
“The report does not impugn the FBI’s institutional integrity,” the bureau statement continued. “It doesn’t criticize – or even question – the brand that this organization has earned over 111 years.”
But the specter of the inspector general’s investigation has shaken some of the bureau’s most loyal supporters.
“There has been nothing else like this,” said Oliver “Buck” Revell who spent three decades at the bureau, rising to the office of associate deputy director before his retirement. “I can’t think of anything that has been more traumatic. Certainly, we have never had a president of the United States making allegations that threaten the public’s trust in the institution.
“We have to find a way to fix this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Contributing: Deidre Shesgreen, Kevin McCoy, Tom Vanden Brook and Donovan Slack