Watchdog report: FBI's Russia probe justified, no bias found

The FBI was justified in opening its investigation into ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia and did not act with political bias, despite “serious performance failures” up the bureau’s chain of command, the Justice Department's internal watchdog said in a highly anticipated report Monday. The findings undercut President Donald Trump’s claim that he was the target of a “witch hunt.”

Yet its nuanced conclusions deny a clear-cut vindication for Trump's supporters or critics. It rejects theories and criticism spread by Trump and his supporters while also finding errors and misjudgments likely to be exploited by Republican allies as the president faces a probable impeachment vote this month.

Trump, in remarks at the White House shortly after the report's release, claimed that the report showed “an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it.”

The president has repeatedly said he was more eager for the report of John Durham, the hand-picked prosecutor selected by Attorney General William Barr to conduct a separate review of the Russia probe.

Barr rejected the inspector general’s conclusion that there was sufficient evidence to open the investigation.

“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 in a statement. His remarks were an unusual twist in that the attorney general typically does not take issue with an internal investigation that clears a Justice Department agency of serious misconduct.

In an interview with The Associated Press, FBI Director Chris Wray said the inspector general found problems that are “unacceptable and unrepresentative of who we are as an institution.” But he also noted that political bias did not taint the opening of the investigation, or the steps that followed. He said the FBI is implementing more than 40 corrective actions.

Durham, in a brief statement, said he has informed the inspector general that he also doesn’t agree with the conclusion that the inquiry was properly opened, and suggested his own investigation would back up that assertion.

The inspector general identified 17 “significant inaccuracies or omissions” in applications for a warrant from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and subsequent warrant renewals. The errors, the watchdog said, resulted in “applications that made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.”

But the report also found the bureau was justified in eavesdropping on Page and that there was not documented or testimonial evidence of any political bias.

Republicans have long criticized the process since the FBI relied in part on opposition research from a former British spy, Christopher Steele, whose work was financed by Democrats and the Clinton campaign, and that fact was not disclosed to the judges who approved the warrant.

The watchdog found that the FBI had overstated the significance of Steele’s past work as an informant, omitted information about one of Steele’s sources who Steele had called a “boaster” and who Steele said the source “may engage in some embellishment.”

The report's release, coming the same day as a House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing centered on the president's interactions with Ukraine, brought fresh attention to the legal and political investigations that have entangled the White House from the moment Trump took office.

The FBI's Russia investigation, which was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller, began in July 2016 after the FBI learned that a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had been saying before it was publicly known that Russia had dirt on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the form of stolen emails. Those emails, which were hacked from Democratic email accounts by Russian intelligence operatives, were released by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the election in what U.S. officials have said was an effort to harm Clinton's campaign and help Trump.

The report said the FBI was authorized to open the investigation to protect against a national security threat.

Months later, the FBI sought and received the Page warrant. Officials were concerned that Page was being targeted for recruitment by the Russian government, though he has denied wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.

The inspector general also found that an FBI lawyer is suspected of altering an email to make it appear as if an official at another government agency had said Page was not a source for that agency, even though he was.

Agents were concerned that if Page had worked as a source for another government agency, they would’ve needed to tell the surveillance court about that, the report said, and tasked the lawyer with contacting the other agency to obtain additional information. But the lawyer “did not accurately convey, and in fact altered, the information he received from the other agency,” the report said.

The lawyer is not identified by name in the report but people familiar with the situation have identified him as Kevin Clinesmith. The inspector general’s report says officials notified the attorney general and FBI director and provided them with information about the altered email.

The inspector general conducted more than 170 interviews involving more than 100 witnesses, including former FBI director James Comey, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the Russia investigation, and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, along with FBI agents and analysts.