Watchdog Pushes Back on Claims of Bias in Russia Probe

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department’s inspector general was back in the hot seat Wednesday, fielding questions from senators on his explosive report on the origins of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Testifying to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Michael Horowitz again refuted Republicans’ claims that deep-seated political bias in the Justice Department set into motion the Crossfire Hurricane investigation later taken up by former special counsel Robert Mueller.

But Horowitz repeatedly expressed deep concern over his internal probe uncovering 17 errors in FBI applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

“We are deeply concerned that so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked investigative teams, on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations, after the matter had been briefed to the highest levels within the FBI even though the information sought through the FISA authority related so closely to an ongoing presidential campaign,” the inspector general testified Wednesday.

In a scathing order Tuesday, the presiding judge on the FISA court, Rosemary Collyer, wrote that the FBI submitted misleading applications antithetical to the candor expected from the intelligence agency.

Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., warned the future of the secretive court was in jeopardy. His Republican colleague, Kentucky Senator Ron Paul, took a firmer stance, telling the committee the “tweaks” proposed by the FBI will not suffice.

“We should not subject our political campaigns to secret courts and to secret warrants and to secret surveillance,” Paul said.

Johnson kicked off the committee by pressuring Horowitz to confirm bias at the highest levels of FBI leadership.

“You’re not saying that that bias did not potentially influence. You’re just saying that you have no evidence that it did. Is that an accurate statement?” the senator asked.

But Horowitz stood by the findings in his 434-page report.

“We put this report out here so the public can read it, look at the facts for themselves,” Horowitz said. “But we did not find — exactly what we said — documentary or testimonial evidence of bias, nothing more, nothing less.”

In a full day of testimony last week, Horowitz was careful not to step into volatile terms in lines of questioning from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Stopping short of doctored, Horowitz testified that FBI agents altered the FISA applications.

Asked by Democrats on Wednesday if the FBI spied on Trump Tower, as the president has routinely accused the bureau, Horowitz answered along the same lines.

“We are very careful to use the legal words that are used here, which is surveillance,” he said, adding: “We did not find evidence of surveillance on Trump Tower.”

Republicans posed narrow questions on pejorative texts between FBI agents about then-candidate Trump. But the inspector general’s team also discovered texts between pro-Trump investigators.

“We found evidence of political views disassociated from action…we are not concluding that someone is biased simply because they supported one candidate or another,” Horowitz said.

Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., later read off one such text from a handling agent for a confidential human source to a fellow agent comparing Trump’s election win to “watching a Super Bowl comeback.”

But Johnson argued that had the information hidden in upper leadership chains inside the investigative teams been made public, support for Mueller’s investigation would have faltered.

“With a sufficiently informed public, and an FBI and Department of Justice that rigorously followed their own procedures, this national political nightmare could have been avoided,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

Ranking member Senator Gary Peters, D-Mich., reminded his Republican colleagues that Russia engaged in a “sweeping and systematic effort” to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Horowitz confirmed in response to Peters that his 19-month investigation found the FBI opened the Russia investigation on proper legal and factual grounds.

“Politically motivated investigations are a betrayal of our bedrock democratic principles and this institution should speak with one voice to say that it will not tolerate them no matter who is in power,” Peters said.

But Horowitz later added in exchanges with Peters that there was no evidence in FBI emails or text messages that explained the failures in the bureau’s process obtaining FISA warrants.

“In the absence of satisfactory answers I can’t tell you as I sit here whether it was gross incompetence,” Horowitz said. “I think with the volume of errors you can make an argument that that would be a hard sell, that it was just gross incompetence.”

Following up, Peters stated the inspector general will have to conduct further audits to determine if fundamental errors are occurring on a regular basis in FBI investigations.

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