monday, 9 december of 2019


Justice Department watchdog to issue report on FBI handling of Russia probe

The U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog is expected to announce on Monday that the FBI, despite some mistakes, was legally justified in 2016 in opening its investigation into contacts between President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, according to sources familiar with the findings.

Michael Horowitz, the department’s inspector general, is set to release findings from a review begun in 2018 of the politically explosive matter.

The Republican president has accused the FBI of improperly launching the investigation, including “spying” on his campaign, in a bid to destroy his candidacy and protect Democrats, and has advocated to "investigate the investigators." FBI officials have said the inquiry was launched because of legitimate concerns about unlawful foreign influence in U.S. elections.

Democrats have accused Trump of seeking to discredit a legitimate investigation that detailed extensive interactions between his campaign and Russia and long cast a cloud over his presidency.

Horowitz’s inquiry focuses on whether the FBI made any serious mistakes or omissions when it applied to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) in 2016 to obtain a surveillance warrant to track the communications of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. This court handles U.S. government applications for electronic surveillance and other investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes.

People familiar with the findings, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Horowitz concluded that the FBI had the proper legal basis to open the investigation. They said that Horowitz did find some mistakes in the process of obtaining the warrant, though this did not undermine the wiretap’s legality.

The report is expected to fault some FBI actions. U.S. media outlets have reported Horowitz found that a former low-level FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, improperly altered an email submitted to the FISA court when the surveillance warrant was being renewed.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.

Horowitz’s report will not be the final word on the subject. Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, in May appointed John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to examine whether the Russia investigation was properly predicated. Durham’s work has become a criminal investigation.

The FBI investigation, launched in the summer of 2016 ahead of the November election pitting Trump against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, was taken over in May 2017 by former FBI chief Robert Mueller after Trump fired James Comey as the agency’s director.

Mueller’s 22-month special counsel investigation detailed a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States, harm Clinton and boost Trump. Mueller documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Moscow but found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy.

Trump called the investigation a witch hunt and assailed FBI leaders and career staffers who worked on it.

Steele dossier

Trump’s supporters have accused the FBI of improperly relying on a dossier by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele when it sought to justify to the FISA court the Page wiretap. Trump’s allies have accused the FBI of failing to disclose that Steele was employed by a firm funded by Democrats to conduct opposition research on him.

Horowitz is expected to conclude that the dossier was not the sole piece of evidence used to convince the court, the sources said.

Clinesmith was identified during a congressional hearing last year by Republican congressman Mark Meadows as the "FBI Attorney 2" mentioned in a previous Horowitz report that examined how the agency handled its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Clinesmith, former FBI attorney Lisa Page and former special agency Peter Strzok were found to have exchanged text messages critical of Trump.

In one instance, FBI Attorney 2 sent a message to another agency lawyer commenting about the amount of money a person under investigation had been paid while working on Trump’s campaign. When the lawyer asked if that had made him "rethink" his commitment to Trump’s administration, FBI Attorney 2 responded, "Hell no. Viva le resistance."

Lisa Page, not related to Carter Page, has since left the FBI. Strzok was fired over the texts and has sued the Justice Department, claiming wrongful termination.

While Horowitz found that the texts "cast a cloud" over the FBI’s handling of the investigation, he concluded in that prior report there was no evidence showing political bias impacted its decision-making.

Durham’s investigation’s is ongoing. Durham and Barr traveled to Rome in September to meet with Italian intelligence officials about Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese university professor who, according to Mueller’s report, had contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

According to Mueller’s report, Mifsud met with former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and told him Russia possessed potentially damaging emails on Clinton. Papadopoulos was later charged with lying to the FBI as part of Mueller’s investigation and pleaded guilty.

(Published by Reuters, December 9, 2019)

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