Chuck Ross on October 14, 2019
- The Justice Department is expected to release its much-anticipated report on potential FISA abuse soon.
- A lot is riding on the report. Republicans have built up expectations that it will be highly critical of the FBI’s actions during the Trump-Russia probe.
- The FBI relied heavily on the unverified Steele dossier to obtain warrants to spy on Carter Page. The special counsel’s investigation undercut several of Steele’s allegations of Trump-Russia collusion.
The Justice Department inspector general’s much-anticipated report of FISA abuse is expected to be made public soon, perhaps within the next couple of weeks.
A lot is riding on the report, which Michael Horowitz, the inspector general, submitted to the FBI and Justice Department for a declassification review on Sept 13.
Republican lawmakers have built up expectations that the report will be a damning portrayal of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign, including former Trump aide Carter Page. FBI officials relied on the controversial Steele dossier to obtain four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants to monitor Page’s phone calls and emails from October 2016 through September 2017.
The FBI asserted in the applications that there was probable cause to believe that Page was acting as a foreign agent of Russia. The warrants allowed investigators to retroactively review Page’s electronic correspondence with other Trump associates.
Republicans have accused the FBI of improperly relying on the unverified dossier to argue that Page may have been a Russian agent. That complaint has gained traction in the wake of the special counsel’s report, which said there was no evidence that any Trump associates acted as Russian agents, or that they worked with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.
Democrats have largely ignored the probe, focusing instead on the special counsel’s investigation, and an impeachment inquiry that centers on Trump’s actions towards Ukraine.
Former FBI officials who are most likely to be scrutinized in the report (James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Jim Baker) have spent months defending the FBI’s actions during the investigation.
The report is rumored to be released sometime this month. Republican Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe said on Fox News on Oct. 7 that the report would be out within two weeks. The OIG did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
What’s under investigation?
On March 28, 2018, Horowitz opened an “examination” into whether the Justice Department and FBI complied with “legal requirements and policies in applications filed with the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court relating to a certain U.S. person,” Carter Page.
The “examination” appears to have turned into a full-blown investigation. The OIG has conducted more than 100 interviews, and reviewed more than 1 million pages of documents.
The probe initially focused on the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier, and investigators’ interactions with Christopher Steele, the former spy who wrote the salacious document.
“As part of this examination, the OIG is also reviewing information that was known to the DOJ and the FBI at the time the applications were filed from or about an alleged FBI confidential source,” the DOJ OIG’s website says, referring to Steele as the confidential source.
“Additionally, the OIG is reviewing the DOJ’s and FBI’s relationship and communications with the alleged source as they relate to the FISC applications. If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider including other issues that may arise during the course of the review.”
Investigators with the OIG have interviewed FBI officials who worked on the Trump-Russia probe. They also interviewed Steele, who was initially reluctant to cooperate with the investigation.
Page told the DCNF on Monday that he was not contacted or interviewed by the OIG.
“The person who this is about has had absolutely no input whatsoever,” he said.
The report could also include an assessment of whether FBI officials were biased against Trump during the Russia probe. During an investigation into FBI activities during the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Horowitz’s team discovered anti-Trump text messages that FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok exchanged with FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
Strzok and Page were heavily critical of Trump in the messages. In a text on Aug. 8, 2016, Strzok told Lisa Page that “we’ll stop” Trump from becoming president. He also referred to an “insurance policy” against Trump in an Aug. 15, 2016 message to Page, with whom he was having an affair.
What did the FBI allegedly do wrong?
Republicans have accused the FBI of abusing the FISA process by relying on the unverified Steele dossier to obtain warrants against Page. They’ve also accused the bureau of withholding information about Steele’s anti-Trump bias, and that he was working on behalf of the DNC and Clinton campaign to dig up dirt on Trump.
The FBI’s applications do say in a footnote that Steele’s client was likely looking to “discredit” Trump’s candidacy.
Republicans have also faulted the FBI for failing to disclose that Steele told Justice Department official Bruce Ohr that he was “desperate” to see Trump lose the election.
After the dossier was published on Jan. 10, 2017, Democrats touted the dossier and its allegations of Trump-Russia collusion. Democratic California Rep. Adam Schiff read off a list of Steele’s allegations during an open House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20, 2017.
Steele, a former MI6 officer, alleged that Page was part of a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
Steele also said that it was Page’s idea to release hacked DNC emails through WikiLeaks, and that Page met in July 2016 in Moscow with two Kremlin insiders, Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin.
The tide turned on the dossier towards the end of 2017 after it was revealed that Democrats funded the document. Steele and the FBI came under more scrutiny as nearly all of the dossier’s Trump campaign-specific allegations remained unverified.
The special counsel’s investigation undercut the dossier’s central claim, and also did not back up the allegations regarding Page.
The special counsel’s report said that there was no evidence that any Trump associates worked as Russian agents, or were involved in WikiLeaks publishing stolen DNC emails. Page has vehemently denied ever meeting Sechin and Diveykin. The special counsel did not allege that any meetings occurred.
The investigation is likely to focus on whether the FBI properly informed FISA judges about the information gathered from Steele about Page.
The Steele dossier timeline
April 2016: Perkins Coie, the law firm representing the Clinton campaign and DNC, hires opposition research firm Fusion GPG to investigate Trump.
June 2016: Fusion GPS, which was co-founded by Glenn Simpson, hires Steele, who is based in London, to dig up dirt on Trump and his associates’ possible ties to Russia.
June 20, 2016: Steele writes the first of 17 memos laying out salacious allegations against Trump. The first memo alleged that the Kremlin had a blackmail video of Trump in Moscow in 2013.
July 5, 2016: Steele meets with a longtime FBI contact, Michael Gaeta, in Rome to share information he had gathered in the fledgling Trump probe.
July 30, 2016: Steele contacts and meet with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, and his wife, a Fusion GPS contractor named Nellie Ohr.
Early August 2016: Ohr meets with then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and briefs him on the Steele meeting. Ohr has testified that Steele relayed to him information that would later be in the dossier, and that he shared that information with McCabe.
Steele continued meeting with FBI agents in the run-up to the election.
Sept. 23, 2016: Yahoo! News’ Michael Isikoff reports that U.S. officials were interested in Page’s activities in Russia. The story laid out information that would later be shown to have come from Steele. The former spy met with Isikoff and numerous other journalists before the 2016 election, though that was not revealed until 2017.
Oct. 11, 2016: Steele briefs State Department official Kathleen Kavalec about information from his investigation. Jonathan Winer, a State Department official and longtime aide to John Kerry, arranged the meeting. It would later be revealed that Winer was a source for Isikoff’s article about Page. Winer was also in contact with Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS.
Oct. 21, 2016: The FBI obtains the first of four FISA warrants on Carter Page.
Oct. 31, 2016: The FBI cuts official ties with Steele after discovering that he spoke with reporters. That same day, Mother Jones’ David Corn publishes an interview with Steele — who was not identified by name. Winer was also a source for Corn.
After Trump’s election win on Nov. 8, 2016, FBI officials ask Ohr to continue corresponding with Steele. Ohr reported back to his FBI contacts at least a dozen times between Nov. 22, 2016 and May 2017.
Republicans have questioned whether Ohr had a conflict of interest since his wife worked for Fusion GPS.
November 2016: Sir Andrew Wood, a former British diplomat and Steele associate, tells Sen. John McCain and his longtime colleague, David Kramer, about Steele’s investigation. McCain arranges for Kramer to fly to London to meet with Steele. The pair meet, and make arrangements to provide the dossier to McCain.
Dec. 9, 2016: McCain gives Comey a copy of the dossier, unaware that the FBI already possessed the document.
Late December 2016: According to Kramer, Steele directed him to meet with BuzzFeed reporter Ken Bensinger, and Carl Bernstein, the legendary Watergate reporter who is now a CNN correspondent.
Jan. 6, 2017: Comey briefs Trump about the salacious allegations in the dossier
Jan. 10, 2017: CNN breaks the story about the briefing. Hours later, BuzzFeed’s Ken Bensinger published the dossier in full.
A lot remains unclear about Steele, Fusion GPS, and the FBI’s investigation of the Trump team.
How Steele obtained his information — and who his sources are — largely remains a mystery.
The numerous inaccuracies in the dossier have also raised questions about how Steele obtained the bad information. Some prominent theories for the errors are that Steele fabricating evidence, that he merely repeated gossip picked up from unreliable sources, or that he fell victim to a Russian disinformation campaign.
Attorney General William Barr has testified that he is “concerned” that the dossier contains disinformation planted by Russians.
What do we know about Horowitz?
Horowitz has a reputation for fairness and impartiality.
Appointed IG by President Barack Obama in April 2012, Horowitz has issued a series of scathing reports for the FBI under Comey’s tenure.
In a June 14, 2018 report, the OIG criticized Comey’s announcement in a July 5, 2016 press event that he was not recommending charges against Clinton.
Horowitz released a report on McCabe on April 13, 2018 alleging that the former FBI deputy director displayed a “lack of candor” during interviews regarding his authorization of leaks to the media in October 2016 regarding an FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation.
Horowitz referred McCabe for potential prosecution, and recommended that he be fired. McCabe was fired on March 16, 2018. He is currently under a federal grand jury investigation.
Horowitz also said in a report released on Aug. 29 that Comey violated FBI policy in his handling of memos he wrote following meetings with Trump.
Comey provided at least four of the memos to a friend and his attorneys. He instructed the friend, Daniel Richman, to provide details of the memo to a New York Times reporter.
Horowitz said that Comey set a “dangerous example” for other FBI employees.
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