Takeaways from the Senate hearing with Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz spoke extensively on Wednesday about his findings on Crossfire Hurricane, the counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump campaign associates were coordinating with the Russian government to sway the presidential election.
Horowitz defended his conclusion that there had been no political bias in launching the investigation back in 2016 — rebutting Attorney General William Barr — but criticized the FBI’s handling of the probe in no uncertain terms.
Here are the key takeaways from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:
Horowitz objects to Barr’s claims: ‘He’s free to have his opinion’
The deepening divide within the Justice Department was on full display. On several key points, Horowitz staked out positions that are now being publicly rejected by Barr and Trump.
Barr and federal prosecutor John Durham, who is also investigating the early Russia investigation at Barr’s direction, both said this week they didn’t agree with some of Horowitz’s findings that the FBI case had been opened properly. But Horowitz on Wednesday was able to hit back publicly, this time saying he was “surprised’ by Durham’s public statement.
“He’s free to have his opinion,” Horowitz responded, when asked about Barr.
“I had some idea” Barr would not fully endorse him, Horowitz said later during the hearing. Horowitz reiterated he stands by the report.
“I didn’t take the IG job to be popular,” he added.
During the hearing, Horowitz also confirmed reports from CNN and other news outlets that his office asked Barr and Durham to share any evidence that could assist his review into the origins of the Russia investigation.
“None of the discussions changed our findings” that senior FBI officials weren’t motivated by anti-Trump bias during the early stages of the investigation, Horowitz said.
Sharp, unreserved criticism for FBI
Horowitz pointed out that the findings in his report “don’t vindicate anybody who touched this,” even after several top FBI officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, used the report as their victory lap this week.
The report, which was released Monday, uncovered 17 “significant errors or omissions” made by the FBI in the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The FBI first sought approval to surveil Page shortly after he left the campaign in fall 2016, but also omitted in its applications a critical finding that exculpatory evidence about Page was omitted.
Horowitz had recommended in his report professional conduct reviews of everyone who had worked on or been in the chain of command for the Page FISA warrant. That condemnation went, theoretically, to the top-after Horowitz had found major errors in the Page Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant application itself and the management of it. He had made nine recommendations for changes or further reviews within the FBI and the Justice Department.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham blasted the FBI, saying it was “as if J. Edgar Hoover came back to life.”
“Trump’s time will come and go, but I hope we understand that what happened here can never happen again,” the South Carolina Republican said. “Because what happened here is not a few irregularities, what happened here is the system failed. People at the highest level of our government took the law in their own hands. And when I say defraud the FISA court, I mean it.”
Still, no evidence of bias
Horowitz was firm on Wednesday that he had found no evidence of bias in the FBI’s handling of Crossfire Hurricane — and repeated this when questioned about it several times.
“While the information in the FBI’s possession at the time was limited, in light of the low threshold established by Department and FBI predication policy, we found that Crossfire Hurricane was opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication,” Horowitz said.
“We stand by our finding,” he added later.
Democrats on the committee touted these findings throughout the hearing, holding them up as proof that Trump was wrong to accuse the FBI of hatching a “deep state” plot against him.
But Horowitz said he had looked for bias only in a few specific areas, and his team did not examine the Mueller investigation, which Trump has accused of being plagued by political motivations. So, Republicans also walked away with a strong talking point on the bias question. Horowitz kept his answers narrow and declined to say that all actions in the entire Russia investigation were bias-free.
“We’re not ruling it out,” Horowitz said.
And Horowitz refused to speculate about the motivations of the FBI officials who made major mistakes during the FISA process. He didn’t give them a clean bill of health, leaving the question unsettled for now, though Barr might provide an answer in the future.
Foreign surveillance under fire
What Congress createth, Congress can taketh away. About 40 years ago, when Congress founded it the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court began reviewing an approving federal agents’ requests for surveillance and Graham said Wednesday the court may need “fundamental reform.”
Horowitz noted how problematic the prepared FISA application on Page was. “Let me put it this way,” he said, ” I would not have submitted the one they put in.”
Graham said he had “serious concerns” about the secretive surveillance court which approved politically sensitive wiretaps in 2016, and that he’s not sure the court should continue to exist “unless there is fundamental reform.”
The special court operates in secret and approves wiretaps under FISA, a law that is typically used to target foreign spies and terrorists.
“After your report, I think we need to rewrite the rules of how you start a counterintelligence investigation and the checks and balances that we need,” Graham said.
Inspector general continues his work with Giuliani probe
Horowitz confirmed what his office is working on now, and that’s looking into possible FBI leaks from the New York field office, including to Rudy Giuliani, but he hinted that his team was struggling to prove that there were illegal leaks.
“What’s proving to be very hard is to prove the actual substance of the communications between the agents and the reporter, or the individuals, but we can prove the contacts,” Horowitz said. “Under FBI policy you need authorization if you’re going to disclose information and have certain contacts.”
Shortly before the election, Giuliani claimed that he had heard about big problems coming soon for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Democrats accused Giuliani, who was previously the US attorney in Manhattan, of tapping his network of friends and contacts in law enforcement to get tips about Clinton, which he used to attack her in the press. Comey also raised this possibility in a closed-door deposition with House lawmakers last year, and confirmed that he had launched the leak investigation before he was fired in May 2017.
Giuliani has denied ever receiving non-public information from active FBI agents.