Intelligence Surveillance & Privacy

Thoughts on the Horowitz Report, Part II: What the Inspector General Did Not Find

Benjamin Wittes
Friday, December 27, 2019, 5:22 PM

The investigation may have taken steps that the inspector general thinks unwise, thinks should have been forbidden by policy, and thinks should have required more Justice Department consultation. But it was, in fact, about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (Source: Flickr/OversightandReform)

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a Lawfare series covering Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation, which explored possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Part I is available here and Part III is available here.

Normally, when an inspector general finds significant irregularities and improprieties in one arena and none in some other arenas, we focus on the areas in which he or she finds wrongdoing. After all, we expect things to be normal. So when an investigation finds that things are normal, no action or remediation is required, and it’s a bit ostrich-like to spend time making much of such findings before turning to serious problems that do require fixing.

Then again, normally, the president of the United States does not spend years promoting unfounded conspiracy theories about the subject the inspector general has been tasked to investigate. And, normally, an entire media industry does not commit itself to spinning a massive web of deceit about that subject in what amounts to a long-term disinformation campaign against individuals and government institutions alike.

Yet that is precisely what has happened over the past three years with regard to the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Without rehashing the lies in detail, let me just say that they have been copious and diverse and imaginative in their conspiratorial scope, they have been repeated relentlessly, and they have been influential.

And it is thus difficult to discuss Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s findings with respect to the Carter Page FISA applications without disentangling that issue from the many allegations with which they are intertwined.

It is thus important to emphasize the degree to which the Horowitz report debunks the surrounding conspiracy theories. I don’t mean debunk in the way that the Mueller report is said to debunk the idea of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The Mueller report, after all, found copious evidence of contacts, interactions, and cooperation between Trump campaign officials and Russian cutouts and agents—just not enough evidence to prosecute anyone for coordinating with the Russian electoral interference efforts. No, the Horowitz report debunks the “Witch Hunt” conspiracy theories on a far different level—the level of finding that a whole bunch of things alleged to have been done corruptly were, in fact, done on the level, done in compliance with policy for perfectly good reasons, or not done at all.

I reviewed some of these matters in a post the day the report was released. David Kris reviewed the findings on political bias in greater detail the other day, concluding,

I think it is fair to say the following about the inspector general’s report and the possibility of political bias in Crossfire Hurricane: (a) Horowitz did a very thorough investigation; (b) in the course of that investigation he was very much on the lookout for evidence of political bias that could have affected the conduct of Crossfire Hurricane; (c) he searched in the right places at the FBI and the Justice Department for such evidence (including agents’ text messages and emails, and the classified files); (d) he nonetheless did not find evidence of such bias; (e) he did find evidence affirmatively supporting the absence of political bias (including through the presence of evidence that justified various investigative steps and in testimony from FBI and Justice Department officials whose credibility does not appear to be seriously in question); but (f) he did not receive satisfactory explanations for the various significant failures that occurred in the investigation, which leaves the issue more open than it otherwise would be.

A few key additional points that bear emphasis:

  • The investigation was properly predicated and began when the FBI said it began.

  • The FBI did not improperly use confidential human sources.

  • The FBI did not use confidential human sources to gather intelligence on the Trump campaign at all.

  • There is no relationship between the conduct of the investigation and text exchanges between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.

On some of these issues, the inspector general raises legitimate policy concerns, which I will discuss in a later post. For present purposes, the relevant point is simply that the behavior that has occupied hundreds of presidential tweets and countless hours on Fox News—and dominated innumerable ranting speeches by Republican members of Congress—did not happen. Not that these things can’t be proved or, in Mueller-speak, that the evidence “does not establish” them. They are just not true.

I would not dwell on this point if those who advanced these theories showed any sign of backing off of them. But they don’t. The day the inspector general’s report was issued, President Trump cited it triumphantly for a proposition it decisively rejects: “This was an overthrow of government. This was an attempted overthrow, and a lot of people were in on it. And they got caught. They got caught red-handed,” he said.

In a speech at a rally on Dec. 18, Trump revived the insurance policy conspiracy, declaring before an audience, “We have an insurance policy, we’re in the insurance policy right now, folks. We've been in it for three years that’s what they meant. I mean, the insurance policy is on an artificial respirator because we’re doing awfully well.”

During Horowitz’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this month, a number of Republican senators sought to retroactively morph his undoubtedly devastating findings with respect to the handling of the Page FISA application into support for the broader proposition that the FBI had been, in fact, politically targeting the Trump campaign. This understanding simply does not survive even a cursory reading of the report, which makes clear that the misconduct and errors found were confined largely to the handling of the Page FISA application, were confined to the line levels of the investigation, and, critically, did not involve investigative steps against the campaign itself or against people about whom there was no predicated investigation. It’s a feeble sort of witch hunt indeed that goes after only people against whom the FBI has a proper basis for conducting an investigation and uses against those people only lawful investigative tools.

All of this is not to diminish the severity of what Horowitz found with respect to the handling of the Page FISA application, to which I’ll turn in the posts to come, but, rather, to situate that discussion where it belongs. The misconduct found there, at least not as the report describes it, does not appear to have been part of a coup attempt, an insurance policy or a witch hunt. It was either a spectacular one-off failure driven by the investigative peculiarities of the way Crossfire Hurricane was set up, or it reflects systemic weaknesses in the FISA process more generally. Those are both very serious matters, the latter possibility more serious than the former. But they are quite different from the problem of political targeting of enemies, which is what the president and his allies continue to allege.

To respond effectively to the problem the FBI now has to address, it is important first to understand it properly. To do that, it is critical to stop lying about it—or, at least, to see through the barrage of lies. Otherwise, one might address problems that don’t exist while failing to address those that do.

There’s one more reason to emphasize Horowitz’s debunking of lies: Because they are malicious untruths about real people—ironically, people who are not the folks Horowitz accuses of wrongdoing in this report. These lies have had big effects on people’s lives. I know that, to many commentators, it is all just grist for television and op-eds and the larger outrage machine. But if you happen to be Lisa Page, it’s about something more than that. If you happen to be Peter Strzok or Andrew McCabe, or Jim Baker, or anyone else the president has publicly accused of “treason,” it’s about something more than that too.

Some time back, Baker made an arresting comment in a congressional deposition, “The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation regarding the 2016 campaign fundamentally was not about Donald Trump but was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. It was about what Russia was, and is, doing and planning.”

The broad significance of the inspector general’s findings one has to appreciate before understanding the findings with respect to the Page FISA application is that Baker was telling the truth. The investigation may have taken steps that the inspector general thinks unwise, thinks should have been forbidden by policy, and thinks should have required more Justice Department consultation. It may have been too aggressive for Horowitz’s taste in certain respects. But it was, in fact, about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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