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Watchdog caught in political crossfire on his Russia report

WASHINGTON, DC – The Justice Department’s internal watchdog was caught in a political tug of war Wednesday as Republican and Democratic senators used his report on the origins of the Russia investigation involving Donald Trump's 2016 campaign to support their views that it was a legitimate probe or a badly bungled farce.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his findings that while the FBI had a legitimate basis to launch the investigation and was not motivated by political bias in doing so, there were major flaws in how that investigation was conducted.

The hearing was the latest reflection of Washington’s intense politicization. Senators from both parties praised a detailed, nuanced report by a widely respected, nonpartisan investigator, while pressing him to call attention to findings that back their positions.

Horowitz himself tried to strike a balance.

He noted, on one hand, his conclusion that there was a proper basis to open the investigation and that that decision did not appear motivated by political bias. And under questioning from Democrats, he acknowledged the absence of evidence for some of the most sensational claims by Trump and his supporters: that the investigation into ties between his presidential campaign and Russia had been opened for political reasons, that agents had infiltrated his election bid or that former President Barack Obama had directed a wiretap of the Republican candidate.

Still, his opening statement was overwhelmingly critical of the investigation, and he returned time and again throughout the hearing to serious problems that he said underscored the need for policy changes. He made clear that the FBI should not be comforted by his findings.

The most serious problems, he said, concerned FBI applications for court approval to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide. He rebuked officials up and down the chain of command for failing to update judges as they learned new information that undercut some of their original assertions.

“It doesn't vindicate anybody at the FBI who touched this, including the leadership," Horowitz said. That was a rejection of the views of former FBI Director James Comey, who earlier this week had claimed vindication for the bureau based on Horowitz's conclusions.

Republicans and Democrats pressed Horowitz on whether he believed the FBI had acted with partisan bias. His response was hedged: He said the multitude of errors during the surveillance warrant process, which included the altering of an email by an FBI lawyer, was so “inexplicable" and yielded no obvious explanations that he could not be confident about the intention.

Even so, Horowitz also repeatedly noted under questioning from Democrats that he had not found evidence that the FBI opened its investigation for political reasons. The probe began with proper cause, he said, after the FBI learned that a Trump campaign aide had been told that Russia had information that could hurt the presidential campaign of Trump's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

“It finds that it was a properly predicated investigation based on the rules of the FBI,” Horowitz said of his report.

Trump and his supporters are counting on different conclusions from a separate investigation led by John Durham, a prosecutor selected by Attorney General William Barr to investigate the early days of the Russia investigation. Durham issued a statement disputing some of Horowitz's conclusions.

But Horowitz said they had a relatively technical disagreement — Durham, he said, believed the evidence was sufficient to open a preliminary investigation but not a full one. The latter gives the FBI more intrusive tools for an investigation.

Horowitz's report identified significant problems with applications to receive and renew warrants to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. Investigators were concerned about Page's ties to Russia, but never accused him of wrongdoing.

Horowitz told senators that the FBI failed to follow its own standards for accuracy and completeness when it sought a warrant from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Page's communications.

“We are deeply concerned that so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked investigative teams, on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations, after the matter had been briefed to the highest levels within the FBI," Horowitz said.

Asked at one point if he believed that Page had been treated fairly, Horowitz responded that he didn't believe the applications were handled fairly and that Page “was on the receiving end."

The report detailed 17 errors and omissions during those wiretap applications, including failing to tell the court when questions were raised about the reliability of some of the information that it had presented to receive the warrants.

Those problems were especially alarming because the warrant to monitor Page “related so closely to an ongoing presidential campaign” and “even though those involved with the investigation knew that their actions were likely to be subjected to close scrutiny."

Horowitz's findings that the FBI was justified in launching the investigation has been criticized by Barr, a vocal Trump defender. On Tuesday, Barr said the Russia investigation was based on a “bogus narrative. He declined to rule out that agents may have acted in bad faith.

Horowitz said he has spoken with Barr about his findings and that the attorney general did not present anything that changed his conclusions.

Republican senators asked about another criticism Horowitz leveled at the FBI — that the bureau sent a representative from its Russia investigation team to a strategic intelligence briefing that intelligence officials gave to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns, including to Trump himself and aide Michael Flynn, who later became the administration's national security adviser.

The agent's presence was a “pretext,” Horowitz said, to collect information that might be relevant for the investigation.

The FBI debated but ultimately opted against giving a standard and more extensive defensive briefing that Russia might be trying to influence their campaign, fearful it could impede the ongoing counterintelligence investigation.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., suggested the FBI's decision was reasonable, particularly because Flynn was himself under suspicion. He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russia's ambassador to the United States.

Nonetheless, Horowitz said, “it raises significant policy questions."

FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has said he accepts all the inspector general's findings, is making changes on the briefing process. The FBI said that, going forward, briefings will be “solely intended to provide candidates" with relevant information and that FBI briefers will not be associated with any ongoing FBI investigation.

In a blistering opening statement, the committee chairman, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said the code name for the FBI investigation, “Crossfire Hurricane," was an apt title “because that's what we ended up with — a ‘Crossfire Hurricane.'"

“What happened here is the system failed. People at the highest levels of government took the law into their own hands," said Graham, a Trump ally.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee's top Democrat, said, “I believe strongly that it's time to move on from the false claims of political bias."