DOJ watchdog launches probe into alleged FISA abuse
The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) inspector general formally announced Wednesday that he will launch a separate investigation into the DOJ’s handling of a surveillance warrant application for former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
The inquiry comes “in response to requests from the attorney general and members of Congress,” according to the statement from Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Conservatives for weeks have trumpeted allegations that the DOJ and the FBI abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), detailed in a controversial memo authored by staff for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The allegations were also detailed in a separate criminal referral made by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Broadly, the GOP lawmakers believe that officials inappropriately used a controversial piece of opposition research into then-candidate Donald Trump to obtain a politically-motivated warrant on Page.
According to the statement, Horowitz will examine whether the bureau and the department complied “with legal requirements and with applicable policies and procedures in applications filed … related to a certain U.S. person.”
Horowitz will also review the FBI’s relationship and communications with the “alleged confidential source,” as well as what officials knew “from or about” that source at the time the applications were filed. The “confidential source” is a former MI6 agent named Christopher Steele who assembled the dossier under contract with the intelligence research firm Fusion GPS.
The statement does not cite Page or Steele by name.
The Nunes memo alleges that the FBI and the DOJ misled the clandestine court that approves surveillance requests about the provenance of some of the information in its application for Page. They claim that the application both failed to confirm the information they used from the so-called “Steele dossier” and that they did not tell the court that the original research was paid for in part by then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), through the law firm Perkins Coie.
The dossier is comprised of a series of unconfirmed raw intelligence reports alleging a widespread pattern of connections between Trump campaign officials and Moscow, including claims that the Kremlin sought to cultivate the business mogul “for at least five years.” It also alleged that Putin was backing Trump in the 2016 election in order to “sow discord and disunity” within the U.S.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who have seen the underlying Page application say the information drawn from the dossier was independently confirmed and that officials disclosed that the information was paid for by a political opponent of then-candidate Donald Trump.
The underlying FISA application for Page remains classified and it continues to be a matter of dispute to what extent it relied on Steele’s reports.
Grassley and Graham, meanwhile, have asked the DOJ to look into whether the author of the dossier, Steele, misled the FBI about his contacts with the media.
The Nunes memo also raises concerns about Steele’s comments to the press.
“Steele was suspended and then terminated as an FBI source for what the FBI defines as the most serious of violation — an unauthorized disclosure to the media of his relationship with the FBI in an October 30, 2016 Mother Jones article by David Corn,” the memo reads.
Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, who contracted Steele to produce the dossier, disputes that account.
According to Simpson, Steele was so concerned by the possibility that a presidential candidate might be “blackmailed” by Russia that he reached out to the FBI of his own accord to share what he knew as a “security issue.”
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Simpson acknowledged that he had Steele brief a small group of reporters on his findings. The briefings took place before the election and after Steele had first reached out to the FBI.
But according to Simpson, Steele cut off his contact with the bureau after The New York Times ran a story just two weeks before the election stating that the FBI had investigated alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia but found no clear link. The former spy was concerned “the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and that we didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has previously indicated that the allegations of FISA abuse would fall under the inspector general’s purview.
“We believe the Department of Justice must adhere to the high standards in the FISA court and, yes, it will be investigated. And I think that’s just the appropriate thing,” Sessions said in late February. “The inspector general will take that as one of the matters they’ll deal with.”
Sessions’s deferral to Horowitz infuriated Trump, who called the decision “disgraceful.”
“Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse,” Trump tweeted. “Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”
Horowitz is also in the midst of an ongoing investigation into DOJ decisionmaking during the 2016 election, with a report expected as soon as this month or next.
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