WASHINGTON – Bungled applications to eavesdrop on a former aide of then-candidate Donald Trump. Flawed research by a former British spy tasked with a sensitive, and political, assignment. And an FBI scrambling against the election-season clock to untangle suspicions about foreign government collusion that it feared could have grave national security implications.
A 306-page report by Justice Department special counsel John Durham is refocusing negative attention on one of the most politically significant investigations in FBI history: the probe into whether Trump's 2016 presidential campaign was conspiring with Russia to tip the outcome of the election.
The findings aren't flattering for the FBI, with Durham asserting that it rushed into the investigation without an adequate basis and routinely ignored or rationalized evidence that undercut its premise. The report catalogs a series of errors — though many were already documented years ago by a separate Justice Department inspector general report, and the FBI says it's taken several dozen corrective steps on its own.
A look at some of the major findings of the Durham report.
A ‘SERIOUSLY FLAWED’ INVESTIGATION
The report devotes considerable space to the FBI's decision to open, on July 31, 2016, an investigation into possible criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The probe was initiated after it learned from an Australian diplomat that a Trump campaign associate named George Papadopoulos had claimed to know that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails. By that point, it was well known that Russian operatives had hacked Democratic emails, and Trump had even appeared to publicly invite Moscow to go looking for Clinton's communications.
But, according to Durham, the FBI rushed into the probe without having any evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign had had any contact with any Russian intelligence officers. It identifies by name the Russia experts in the FBI and other agencies who were never consulted before the investigation was begun and says that had they been, they would have said there was no information pointing to a conspiracy between Russia and the campaign.
The report contends that the FBI fell prone to “confirmation bias,” repeatedly ignoring, minimizing or rationalizing away evidence that undercut the premise of collusion, including a conversation in which Papadopoulos vigorously denied knowing about any cooperative relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign.
It also says investigators did not corroborate a “single substantive allegation” in a dossier of Democratic-funded research that was compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, and yet continued to cite it in applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page.
BUT DID IT UNCOVER ‘THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY’ AS TRUMP PREDICTED?
No, it did not. Despite identifying abundant errors, the report and the broader investigation failed to live up to Trump’s hype. The former president claimed that it would reveal the “crime of the century” and expose a “deep state conspiracy” by high-ranking government officials to derail his candidacy and later his presidency.
But the report yielded only one conviction — a guilty plea from a little-known FBI employee — and the only two other cases that were brought both ended in acquittals at trial. And though Durham accused the FBI of confirmation bias, he did not allege that political bias or partisanship were guiding factors for the FBI’s actions.
‘RIGOR, OBJECTIVITY AND PROFESSIONALISM’
The FBI responded to criticism of its actions by noting that the conduct occurred under different FBI leadership, months before current Director Christopher Wray took the top job. It also said it had already taken dozens of corrective measures designed to prevent the same problems from recurring.
Those include steps designed to ensure the accuracy of applications the FBI files with the secretive surveillance court when it wants to eavesdrop on the communications of suspected spies and terrorists. For instance, the FBI said, agents must now provide more information, including identifying and disclosing evidence that might undercut their premise that probable cause exists for surveillance. In addition, the FBI has worked to improve oversight of confidential human sources.
The FBI said in a letter to Durham that it was confident that had those steps been in place in 2016, the “failures detailed in your Report never would have happened.” In a separate statement, it said the report "reinforces the importance of ensuring the FBI continues to do its work with the rigor, objectivity, and professionalism the American people deserve and rightly expect.“
WAS THE CLINTON CAMPAIGN TREATED DIFFERENTLY?
Yes, Durham argues. He notes that the FBI in 2016 also investigated allegations in the book “Clinton Cash,” authored by a conservative writer who alleged foreign governments were funneling money to the Clinton Foundation in exchange for access. Both Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, and former President Bill Clinton have long denied any wrongdoing.
The FBI labeled its reviews linked to “Clinton Cash” as “preliminary investigations,” Durham said. But the Trump Russia probe, he said, “was immediately opened as a full investigation despite the fact that it was similarly predicated on unvetted hearsay information.”
He argues the FBI showed caution about possibly influencing Hillary Clinton’s campaign that it did not show for Trump’s campaign.
To underscore his point, he quotes some of the text messages between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, whose privately expressed dislike for Trump has long been cited as evidence of bias.
“One more thing: (Clinton) may be our next president,” Page is said to have written Strzok. “The last thing you need (is) going in there loaded for bear. You think she’s going to remember or care that it was more doj than fbi?”
AN UPHILL CLIMB IN CONGRESS GETS STEEPER
The Durham report is another blow to the FBI as it’s trying to persuade Congress that it is a responsible steward of intelligence.
Lawmakers are beginning to debate whether to renew a U.S. surveillance program that captures huge swaths of foreigners’ emails and phone calls. The program authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expires at the end of this year.
The Durham report calls attention to mistakes that Republicans have already cited as reasons for overhauling Section 702. The FBI did not use Section 702 in surveilling Page. But its omissions before the primary surveillance court have long rankled Republicans, who have signaled they won't renew Section 702 without changes targeting the FBI.
“It is essential that Congress codifies clear guardrails that prevent future FBI abuses and restores the public’s trust in our law enforcement institutions,” said Rep. Mike Turner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement.
A significant number of Democrats, meanwhile, separately want limits on when the FBI can search foreign surveillance data collected under Section 702.