White House

The Inspector General’s Report Is Hardly Exculpatory of the FBI

The FBI’s headquarters building stands in Washington, D.C., December 7, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The document shrugs off a staggering number of ‘serious performance failures’

How many “missteps” does it take for an FBI investigation to be considered improper by the Inspector General?

According to IG Michael Horowitz, the magic number lies somewhere north of 17. That’s the number of “serious performance failures” uncovered by his investigation into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants obtained by the FBI in connection with former Trump campaign aide Carter Page — who, in the end, was never charged with any crime.

The IG report also confirmed that agents inflated, and then heavily relied on, the Democrat-funded political-opposition work of former British spy Christopher Steele to help propel “Crossfire Hurricane,” an investigation into whether the Republican presidential campaign had criminally conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

For years now we’ve been hearing how the Steele dossier hadn’t been the impetus for “Crossfire Hurricane.” But we know now that even though the FBI understood that the Steele dossier, bought by Democrats, was riddled with inconsistencies and deceptive information, it was “central” to the investigation anyway.

As it turns out, all the factual errors and missing exculpatory information in the misleading FISA-warrant applications happened to skew in the same, convenient, direction. And while Horowitz couldn’t uncover evidence of any “intentional misconduct,” he also couldn’t get any “satisfactory explanations for the errors or problems we identified.” (Aren’t rules governing law-enforcement procedure in place to avoid having to bore into the soul of every agent to determine their intent? Apparently not.)

Now, some distrustful types might find it suspicious that not one of the highly trained law-enforcement agents tasked with obtaining warrants to electronically surveil people connected to a presidential campaign could recall why they misled the court, or why they failed to provide a full accounting of the evidence, or why they exaggerated the role of partisan opposition research in their FISA applications.

Let’s not forget that these agents felt the need to deceive a FISA court that already rubber-stamps basically anything they want. Since 1979, the court has rejected under .04 percent of all surveillance applications. In 2017, one of its stingier years, it rejected 2.5 percent of 1,372 FISA-warrant requests. Having to lie to this highly accommodating court — 17 times, in one case — is a weird thing to do if you don’t have any agenda.

Hey, mistakes happen, say Democrats. Sure, the FBI engaged in some sloppy corner-cutting — you know how that sort of thing goes — but, really, Trump had it coming. Of course, these investigators could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and they wouldn’t lose any support from anti-Trumpers.

The loudest anti-Trump voices, in fact, flooded social media demanding apologies. Former FBI director James Comey now says that the “FBI had to wait two years while the President and his followers lied about the institution. Finally the truth gets told.”

Yes. According to the IG report, the central contentions offered by Adam Schiff in a January 2018 memo “correcting the record” on FISA applications were untrue. The truth is that Comey oversaw an attack on the Fourth Amendment that helped plunge the nation into a three-year partisan goose chase. Among Democrats, the fever dream of Russian collusion still hasn’t broken.

The question is, if Trump and surrogates were demonstrably compromised, obviously in league with Putin, why did the FBI — and obviously we’re not talking about everyone in the institution — rely on faulty, uncorroborated rumormongering rather than a higher threshold of evidence?

Surely one expects that the scandal-free Obama administration would have been super-duper careful in avoiding any “missteps” when snooping on political adversaries, lest they unintentionally create the perception of misuse or prejudice. If the expectation was that the FBI would unearth evidence of Trump surrogates engaging in a criminal conspiracy with a foreign power, they understood that the evidence would have to be made public.

Perhaps there is a good explanation for why this all happened. Yet the answer from Trump’s critics is only to concede that the FBI could probably use some reforming. This is tantamount to arguing that Democrats should forget all of Trump’s actions and reform the executive branch instead. Even if the FBI behaves like this in every case, it still doesn’t mean we should dismiss serious questions about FISA abuse during an election. Even if surveillance had led to the unearthing of a cache of documents connecting Trump directly to Putin, the FBI still manipulated evidence to obtain warrants that allowed them to snoop on the campaign of a presidential candidate.

Of course, every headline in the institutional media points out that the IG found that the FBI had sufficient evidence to satisfy the investigation. Yes, according to Horowitz, the “low threshold” for opening an investigation was met. It’s true. The problem is that the threshold for opening the case into Trump–Russia collusion was a lot lower than it was for the case for accusing the FBI of wrongdoing.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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