Watchdog Finds Problems With FBI Surveillance Procedures

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department’s inspector general reported Tuesday that his investigative team uncovered errors in dozens of FBI applications to a secret surveillance court as part of an expanded investigation that started with a look at the probe of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Traffic streaks past the FBI headquarters building in Washington. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

The report issued by Inspector General Michael Horowitz stems from his audit last year that found 17 serious errors in the FBI’s applications to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The alarm raised Tuesday suggests the FBI’s missteps extend past the controversial case and represent a larger agency deficiency.

Horowitz made clear at the outset of the 10-page memo that his team had not levied judgments about whether the concerns they raised were “material.”

“Nevertheless, we believe that a deficiency in the FBI’s efforts to support the factual statements in FISA applications through its Woods Procedures undermines the FBI’s ability to achieve its ‘scrupulously accurate’ standard for FISA applications,” Horowitz wrote.

Digging into a sample of 29 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, applications, the inspector general identified problems under each review.

The memo addressed to FBI Director Christopher Wray raises “significant questions” over whether case agents are properly compiling so-called Woods files, documentation to back every factual assertion in a FISA application.

Horowitz’s team found it could not review original documents for four of the 29 selected FISA applications because the FBI could not locate them, and in three cases “did not know if they ever existed.” In 25 applications, the investigators found “apparent errors or inadequately supported facts.”

Raising concern that the documentation process is not working as intended to meet the high standard for surveillance warrants, Horowitz wrote: “We do not have confidence that the FBI has executed its Woods procedures in compliance with FBI policy.”

The internal probe further revealed that oversight officials did not carry out comprehensive and strategic assessments of FISA accuracy — noting that both “case agents or supervisors whom we interviewed generally did not contest our results” — and failed to identify the need for training enhancements or increased accountability measures.

Horowitz recommended the FBI launch a physical inventory to verify that Woods files exist for every FISA application submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in pending investigations. The inspector general also advised the agency “to identify patterns or trends in identified errors so that the FBI can enhance training to improve agents’ performance.”

In a letter responding to Horowitz’s most recent findings, FBI Associate Deputy Director Paul Abbate said the errors will be addressed by the more than 40 corrective actions ordered by Wray in the wake of the inspector general’s December 2019 report on the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

“As Director Wray has stressed, FISA is an indispensable tool to guard against national security threats, but we must ensure that these authorities are carefully exercised and that FISA applications are scrupulously accurate,” Abbate wrote.

Republicans locked onto Horowitz finding errors in the Page FISA applications last year as evidence of political bias against the Trump campaign. But the new findings made public Tuesday reinforce Democrats’ defense — and statements during congressional testimony from the inspector general himself — that the audit laid bare wider institutional failings.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that indicated political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision,” Horowitz told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, referring to the FBI counterintelligence official who opened the investigation into the Trump campaign.

The House recently passed a bipartisan bill reforming elements of the FISA law but it is currently held up in the Senate, which passed a short-term reauthorization without reforms after the provisions expired earlier this month.

Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, called Horowitz’s findings on Tuesday further evidence of systemic problems underpinning U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance laws and courts.

“This report further demonstrates that the incident with Carter Page was not a one-off,” Guliani said in a statement. “It is disappointing that despite repeated examples of deficiencies with our surveillance laws, Congress has failed to advance a strong surveillance reform bill to better protect our privacy rights.”

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