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DOJ Watchdog On Russia Probe: No Evidence Of Bias, But Problems With Surveillance

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Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before Congress last year. His report about the Russia investigation is expected on Monday.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before Congress last year. His report about the Russia investigation is expected on Monday.

Updated at 2:26 p.m. ET

The Russia investigation was properly predicated and an internal watchdog found no evidence of political bias — but there were numerous problems with the surveillance of a former junior campaign aide to Donald Trump.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz documents those findings in a new report unveiled on Monday.

Read the report here.

The report adds further fuel to the political whirlpool that has agitated Washington since Trump was elected, including over issues surrounding foreign interference, "bias" and the credibility of investigators and institutions.

Republicans seized on the finding of flaws and omissions to further their case that the FBI and Justice Department have run amok out of political animus toward Trump. Democrats underscored the overall solidity of the picture about the interference of 2016 and the insights yielded about it by the FBI.

Trump, meanwhile, told reporters on Monday that he believed biased officials had been "caught" in an "attempted overthrow," although many of the events involved took place before the election.

Even so: "It's a disgrace what's happened with the things that were done to our country ... it's incredible, far worse than what I ever thought possible," he said.

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Barr slams 'intrusive' inquiry

Attorney General William Barr cited the findings in a statement on Monday that faulted the Russia investigation and echoed the criticism of federal law enforcement voiced for years by Trump and his supporters.

Barr criticized what he called "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."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was abused, Barr said, and he called "the explanations given for these actions unsatisfactory."

Horowitz's report is the first of two expected from the Justice Department since the completion of the Russia investigation earlier this year. The second is still pending from Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was brought in to examine the FBI's actions in the early phases.

Durham issued a rare statement of his own on Monday suggesting that he was reaching different conclusions from Horowitz.

"Our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S. Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report's conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened."

The Page matter

Overall, Horowitz's report found no evidence that the FBI and Justice Department acted with political bias in the broad frame of the Russia investigation.

However, investigators discovered 17 significant errors and omissions in the application for surveillance on Carter Page, who had advised Trump's 2016 campaign.

Horowitz's report concluded the problems with the Page surveillance application represented "serious performance failures" by the FBI and other officials involved.

Attorneys who were supposed to serve as gatekeepers standing between investigators and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were "unable to make a fully informed decision because information was kept from them."

Wrote the investigators:

"Although some of the factual misstatements and omissions were arguably more significant than others, we believe that all of them taken together resulted in FISA applications that made it appear the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case."

Problems included omissions about the sources used by the British ex-intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, who wrote the now-infamous Russia dossier; an omission about Page's relationship with what's described as "another U.S. government agency" between 2008 and 2013; and the paucity of contact between Page and Trump's campaign chairman in 2016, Paul Manafort.

Investigators in 2016 sought and obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct surveillance on Page. Those warrants were re-submitted and reauthorized into the then-new Trump administration.

Such surveillance is only supposed to continue if a target is engaged in activity that produces usable intelligence, suggesting the FBI was getting such information about Page for a time, but that aspect of the story remains unclear.

Page traveled to Russia twice in 2016 and had been an earlier focus of the FBI in connection with contacts he had with Russian intelligence operatives.

But Page has never been charged and he has maintained all along he's done nothing wrong.

He has decried what he's called the abuses by investigators of their surveillance powers and become a cause célèbre for critics of the FBI and Justice Department.

FBI: We're taking it on board

FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Monday the bureau intends to take "more than 40 corrective steps" to address Horowitz's report, including changes to its surveillance and other practices.

Wray said the FBI would modify its procedures involving FISA applications; change the way it uses confidential sources; establish new protocols for briefing presidential campaigns, and more.

The director also said the bureau might discipline people if it concludes, based on tips from Horowitz's report, that is warranted.

Democrats: Horowitz proves no "deep state" conspiracy.

Democrats embraced the report's finding that the Russia investigation was predicated on real intelligence and not a "witch hunt" or a "hoax."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., emphasized that Trump and supporters now have no way to claim that the attack on the 2016 election didn't happen or that the Russia story had been the product of an internal conspiracy.

"The report issued today by the inspector general debunks the conspiracy theories about the Mueller report and the Russia investigation that President Trump and Republicans in Congress have pushed for years," the Democrats said.

Continued Nadler and Maloney: "Those discredited conspiracy theories were attempts to deflect from the president's serious and ongoing misconduct, first urging Russia and now extorting Ukraine into interfering with our elections to benefit himself personally and politically."

The report appeared even as Nadler's committee had convened another impeachment hearing to review the facts of the Ukraine affair.

Investigating the investigators

The inspector general announced his review of the Russia probe in March 2018 in response to a request from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and members of Congress.

Allegations against the FBI echoed, at least in part, the president's frequent claims that his campaign was "spied" on by the Obama administration and that the Russia investigation was a "witch hunt" to kneecap his presidency.

Democrats, in contrast, argue that the bureau acted properly in opening the investigation and in its surveillance of Page.

Steele had been hired by a private intelligence firm that was being paid by Democrats to research Trump in the election context.

The watchdog

Those have been the competing narratives about the Russia investigation since before it was completed by then-special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year.

Now the public can hear from Horowitz himself, an independent inspector general with a long history of nonpartisan work. His phone book-sized reports have periodically taken on great political importance in a politically tumultuous era for the FBI and Justice Department since 2016.

Then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had asked Horowitz to look at whether there was any political motivation in how the FBI approached Trump campaign aides in the Russia investigation.

Rosenstein made that request after the president, in response to media reports, claimed that the FBI had placed a "spy" in his campaign.

There's no evidence of that, although the bureau did use a confidential source — a former professor — to make contact with Page and other Trump aides in 2016 to try to find out what they knew about possible coordination with Russia.

Russian interlocutors offered Trump campaign aides "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, "off the record" meetings and trips to Russia in 2016, investigators have found. The FBI probe that uncovered those activities eventually was taken over by Mueller after he was appointed special counsel in May 2017.

Durham is believed to be looking into what prompted that first phase of the investigation in the spring and summer of 2016.

Durham's work began as an administrative review and was upgraded to a criminal investigation in October. It is unclear when Durham's inquiry might wrap up.

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