Editor’s Note: Asha Rangappa is a senior lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is a former special agent in the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations. Follow her @AshaRangappa_. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
The DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the agency’s head watchdog, has finally released his findings on some of the biggest questions that have been raised about the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference and its links to the Trump campaign over the last three years.
On the whole, the IG report dispels the charges of political bias against Trump, illegal spying on his campaign, and even “treason” that have been levied against the FBI and DOJ. It shows that there was a legal basis to investigate attempts by Russia to coordinate with the Trump campaign, and to use various investigative techniques to obtain information — but also identifies several areas where reforms and additional oversight will be necessary moving forward.
Here are some of the most common charges that have been levied against the FBI and DOJ and what the IG report had to say about them:
1. The Russia investigation was not properly “predicated.”
FALSE. The IG found that the FBI’s investigation into Russian election interference, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane,” was opened on July 31 based on intelligence from a friendly foreign government that Trump’s foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had received a suggestion from Russia that it had damaging information on Hilary Clinton and could help the Trump campaign.
Prior to opening the case, the FBI was already aware that Russia was trying to interfere in the 2016 election and that it may have been connected to the Wikileaks’ disclosures of stolen emails from the DNC. The IG found that these facts met the threshold for opening a “Full Investigation” under the Attorney General Guidelines, which lay out the rules for opening and pursuing FBI investigations — namely, that there was an “articulable factual basis” that “reasonably indicates” that a threat to national security exists.
In addition, the IG notes that the controversial “Steele dossier” did not play a role in the opening of the investigation, as the officials who opened Crossfire Hurricane did not receive Steele’s reporting until several weeks later.
2. The FBI was politically biased and trying to bring down Trump.
FALSE. First, the IG makes clear that Trump himself was never a target of the FBI’s investigation. After opening Crossfire Hurricane, which was about Russian election interference generally, the FBI opened cases on four individuals: George Papadopoulus, Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.
In addition, the IG notes that the two individuals who have been in the spotlight for their incendiary text messages about Trump — Lisa Page and Peter Strzok — were not instrumental in the opening of the FBI’s investigation. In fact, Page “did not play a role” in the decision to open the cases, and while Strzok did, “he was not the sole, or even the highest-level, decision maker as to any of those matters.” The IG found that both Crossfire Hurricane and the four individual cases were opened in compliance with FBI and DOJ policies, and “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions.”
3. The FBI’s FISA application for a warrant to surveil Carter Page was based solely on the Steele dossier.
FALSE. In obtaining an order for electronic surveillance (known as a FISA order) on Carter Page in October of 2016, the FBI relied on five major elements, only one of which was based on the Steele dossier, the IG report found, to prove probable cause that Page “was knowingly engaged in intelligence activities on or behalf of a foreign power.”
The FISA application was based on the activities of Russia’s intelligence services to influence the 2016 election; its attempt to reach out and coordinate its activities with members of the Trump campaign; Page’s past connections to Russia and its intelligence services; Page’s alleged coordination with Russia’s election interference activities, based on Steele’s reporting; and Page’s statements to a confidential informant.
However, the IG noted that months before filing the FISA application in late 2016, the FBI had considered applying for one but determined that the evidence it had at that point would not meet the probable cause standard. The FBI reinstated its effort to obtain a FISA order “immediately after” it received Steele’s reporting. Therefore, while Steele’s information was not the sole basis for the Page FISA application, it was the feather on the scale allowing it to proceed to the FISA court.
4. The FBI presented incomplete or inaccurate information to the FISA court in its application for Carter Page.
TRUE. The most damning part of the IG report is its identification of repeated and systematic failures to properly vet, disclose and correct information provided by the FBI to the FISA court in its applications and renewals to surveil Carter Page.
In particular, the FBI relied on assertions that it knew or should have known were inaccurate, misleading, or even in some cases incorrect in its FISA application. For example, the FBI relied on Page’s contacts with Russian intelligence officers to demonstrate probable cause, despite being aware that Page had been tasked by another US agency during this time period to be in contact with those officers — meaning he was potentially making those contacts at the request and with knowledge of the US government.
The FBI also failed to include statements made by Page to an FBI informant that were inconsistent with the assertions the FBI presented to the court. Similarly, the FBI placed great emphasis on Steele’s reliability as a source because it could not independently verify his assertions. While doing so is permissible in abstract, the FBI had information that Steele was not as reliable as they presented, and also did not disclose information that would have shed light on his own biases or political motivations.
The IG determined that senior FBI and DOJ officials were not aware of these discrepancies — they, too, were not made aware of them by agents and analysts working on the case before certifying the FISA application to the court. But these failures, the IG noted, “taken together resulted in FISA applications that made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.” Importantly, however, the IG did not find that these errors or omissions were a result of “intentional misconduct” on the part of FBI agents, but internal procedural lapses and misjudgments.
These failures form the basis of the bulk of recommendations for further oversight in the IG report.
5. The FBI used an informant to “spy” on the Trump campaign.
FALSE. The IG determined that the FBI used several confidential human sources (CHSs) to interact with subjects under investigation after the Crossfire Hurricane was opened. The IG found the use of these informants to be in compliance with FBI and DOJ policies and procedures.
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The IG also found that the use of these informants was “not for the sole purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment” — meaning that they were not being used to “spy” on the political activities of the campaign, but rather to obtain information and intelligence relevant to the FBI’s investigation into election interference. Nevertheless, the IG recommended reviewing and increasing the consultation and approval of informants in these contexts in order to create an additional buffer for activities protected by the First Amendment.