Opinion | White House

Will the Horowitz report split the baby?

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Republicans have been making predictions for months. They say the soon-to-be-released report from Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz will be a blockbuster, calling out important former intelligence officials for shocking, bad-faith acts involving spying on political rivals.

Democrats, on the other hand, have been saying they expect the Horowitz report to validate the FBI's controversial wiretaps of a Trump associate during the 2016 campaign and into 2017.  

If Horowitz's prior reports are any indication, we can probably expect some of both. If the inspector general has proven to be one thing, it's diplomatic. 

Horowitz has served as the independent watchdog over the DOJ since President Obama appointed him on April 16, 2012. He is well respected by many Democrats and Republicans. 

My own take is that both parties don't know exactly what to make of Horowitz. Depending on who's the target of his scrutiny, one side likes him because, often, he doesn't entirely let the bad guys off the hook. The other side likes him because, often, he doesn't go too far or too high up in assigning blame. From a political standpoint, that's a win-win. People are sort of held accountable - but not too accountable. It's pretty safe.

A recent example can be found when Horowitz recovered some of the supposedly accidentally deleted text messages between two FBI officials. They'd written in 2016 that they were working to keep Donald Trump from getting elected, and wanted to establish an "insurance policy" in case he did win. Even though the FBI claimed it couldn't recover the critical messages when, clearly, they were recoverable, and even though the law requires the FBI to preserve records, there was no announced action against the FBI or the specific officials involved.  

According to Horowitz, the FBI didn't even "provide a specific explanation for the failure in the FBI's text messaging collection relating to [Agent Peter] Strzok's and [FBI attorney Lisa] Page's phones." In other words, our top law enforcement agency was allowed the latitude few of us would be given if we were to destroy or lose records we were supposed to preserve.  

Even more troubling, perhaps, is that it happened again - and the innocent explanation was accepted, again. Scandalously, the same two FBI officials had been hired to work on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Trump-Russia collusion. When Horowitz told Mueller's office about the disturbing content of the officials' recovered text messages, both officials were removed from the Trump investigation. But, incredibly, their phones were wiped clean before investigators could see what was in them. 

According to Horowitz's investigation of that snafu, the FBI employee who inherited Strzok's phone after he left the Mueller probe says she didn't remember it containing any substantive messages. And Page's phone "couldn't be located for several months, but when it was finally found ... it had also been reset and had no messages." 

The deputy attorney general told Horowitz that the FBI wiping returned phones is "standard procedure." This appears to be a routine, blatant violation of public records law. In his report on the matter, Horowitz ultimately called it a "collection tool failure." The response felt like little more than a shoulder shrug. There was no mention of accountability for whoever at the FBI thought it was okay not to track or preserve the phone content of controversial FBI figures while they were under investigation. Republicans got to squawk about the outrage; Democrats got to point to the inspector general's tacit finding that it was all an innocent error. 

The impending report will examine the intelligence community's actions and representations in surveilling Trump associates during the 2016 campaign. We already know it will be lengthy and thorough. And we can predict that each side will cherry-pick excerpts and spin them accordingly to support their views. 

Here are five things for the public to remember as they hear and read news stories about the upcoming findings:

  1. Most news reporters and analysts who comment on the Horowitz report will not have read it. They will rely on other news reports and/or spin provided by partisans and others with vested interests.
  1. Most news reporters and analysts who read any of the report will only review the summary and/or conclusions. Some will read sections pointed out to them by partisans and others with vested interests to prove their particular points.
  1. The report will offer plenty of criticism, but often accept the most innocent explanation for any inappropriate act, barring an explicit admission to the contrary.
  1. Horowitz is not an island. There are other officials at the inspector general's office, including the chief counsel, who weigh in on and impact what the report ultimately says.
  1. Horowitz's authority is limited. He doesn't have the power to prosecute anybody. Even when he has referred an official for possible prosecution, he has to refer the case to the Justice Department - the very agency where the official has friends and colleagues, possibly even co-conspirators. The Department of Justice can - and frequently does - toss aside Horowitz's recommendations.

The most prominent, recent example of Horowitz's limited authority is his referral of former FBI Director James Comey for criminal prosecution, for improperly leaking memos Comey had written about President Trump. The Justice Department decided not to prosecute Comey, saying it didn't think he knew and intended to violate laws on handling classified information. Ironic, of course, since Comey let Hillary Clinton off the hook under the same reasoning and - one would think - thoroughly understood how classified government material is supposed to be handled.

I'm eager to read the report. It will surely contain news. But regardless of what it finds, I will be thinking of former Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, whom the FBI improperly surveilled for a full year under the auspices that he was a Russian spy, or imminently about to become one. 

As we now know, Page had never even met or communicated with Donald Trump at the time the FBI claimed he was the secret nexus between Trump and Russian President Putin. There is no justification for a year's worth of FBI wiretaps obtained by falsely claiming there was good evidence of Page acting as a Russian agent, or imminently about to become one. This FBI's wiretapping of Page could have allowed agents to secretly collect private communications of hundreds if not thousands of people who contacted Page, and those who were connected to those people - even if they'd never met Page, including Trump himself.

No matter what we learn Monday from Horowitz's report, the FBI's action was, at the least, a very serious lapse in judgment and oversight that justifies a major look back at the agency's wiretapping of other U.S. citizens over the years. At worst, it was a blatant act to spy on a political rival. 

Page is owed an apology - and I'll be surprised if that's in anyone's report. 

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers "The Smear" and "Stonewalled," and host of Sinclair's Sunday TV program, "Full Measure."

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