Ominous and Invasive Surveillance Powers Exposed in Horowitz Report

The highly anticipated Justice Department inspector general’s report on the origins of the 2016 Russian collusion probe dropped this week, and in it we learned just what a farce the FISA process has become. Moreover, we learned just how frightening that should be for all of us.

FISA refers to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which, in the wake of certain surveillance abuses by the Nixon Administration, established the secret court assigned with deciding whether or not the government should be allowed to spy on American citizens.

Given the sweeping surveillance the FISA court can authorize⁠—access to a person’s phone, email, workplace, vehicle, and mail, among other things—the standard is supposed to be quite high. Law enforcement must prepare a warrant application for the court and engage in numerous steps to verify the accuracy of the information therein.

But as the Horowitz report made clear⁠, the FISA process has become far too loose. The extent of just how loose was given stunning context during Horowitz’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday⁠.

In his report, which the mainstream media bizarrely spun as vindicating the FBI, Horowitz found no fewer than 17 instances of “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the FISA court applications to target former Trump advisor Carter Page.

“FBI personnel fell far short of the requirement in FBI policy that they ensure that all factual statements in a FISA application are ‘scrupulously accurate,’” the report found. “We identified multiple instances in which factual assertions relied upon in the first FISA application were inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation, based on information the FBI had in its possession at the time the application was filed.”

As senator after senator unpacked the details behind these statements in Wednesday’s hearing, it became painfully obvious that the FBI engaged in willful deceit of the FISA court to surveil someone who not only was an American citizen but someone who was working for the campaign of a major political party.

Asked by Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) whether his report cleared former FBI Director James Comey of responsibility for wrongdoing, Horowitz answered: “The activities we found here don’t vindicate anybody who touched them.” As a reminder, Comey went on record a year ago claiming “the notion that FISA was abused here was nonsense.”

Oh, really? Here are a few of the report’s most damning findings.

The FBI knew the Steele dossier was funded by the Democrat National Committee, and that its contents were largely discredited, but intentionally kept that information from the FISA court. 

The infamous Steele dossier, which the mainstream media unquestioningly reported as factual for years while roundly disparaging people who applied any critical analysis to it, is now known to be a half-baked stack of unsubstantiated gossip. And the FBI knew it.

But agents still presented it to the court more than once as factually based and unbiased, also conveniently leaving out that its research was funded by Democrats.

If senators can’t even trust the FBI not to abuse its powers of surveillance for political purposes, how should the rest of us feel?

In 2017, the FBI interviewed the primary source for the Steele dossier three times. The source roundly contradicted Steele’s findings, noting that many of the claims were misstated, exaggerated, or based wholly on rumor and speculation. The source for the Steele dossier told the FBI that much of the information was gathered from conversations with “friends over beers,” or statements that were made in “jest.”

FBI officials intentially kept this information from the FISA court, however. In fact, in the second and third renewal applications, the FBI told the court that the source for the dossier had been “truthful and cooperative with zero revisions.” This, as Horowitz’s report makes painfully evident, was an outright lie.

And it wasn’t just a few junior staff messing around. As Horowitz explained Wednesday, FBI leadership supported relying on Steele’s reporting to seek a FISA order “even after being advised of concerns expressed by a department attorney that Steele may have been hired by someone associated with a rival candidate or campaign.”

The FISA court, according to Horowitz, relied significantly on the contents of the Steele dossier for the initial issuance and subsequent renewals of the FISA warrant—an incredibly disturbing concept, if you think about it.

A warrant for sweeping surveillance was granted partially on the basis of a specious and unreliable dossier put together by a foreigner, funded by the opposing political party. These are facts we know about the dossier now. But the FBI knew them back then, and proceeded anyway.

An FBI attorney materially altered evidence which the FISA court relied upon in issuing its warrant.

In addition to withholding critical facts about the Steele dossier from the FISA court, the FBI also altered material evidence agents submitted to the court to obtain the surveillance warrant on Page.

As part of their case for surveilling Page, the FBI argued that Page had contact with certain Russians. However, as the Horowitz report lays out, agents failed to mention that Page had served as an operational contact for the Central Intelligence Agency from 2008 to 2013, and that Page “had provided information to the [CIA] concerning his prior contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers, one of which overlapped with facts asserted in the FISA application.”

In other words, the FBI built part of its case for surveilling Page on the fact that he was talking to Russians⁠—without saying that the reason he was talking to Russians was to fulfill his role as a CIA informant.

Horowitz also noted that the CIA gave Page a “positive assessment” which was not included in the FISA warrant applications.

But it wasn’t just that the FBI failed to mention Page’s role with the CIA to the FISA court. FBI officials altered evidence to cover it up.

A CIA liaison informed Kevin Clinesmith, a FBI lawyer at the time, that Page had a previous relationship with the agency. According to Horowitz’s report, the CIA liaison sent Clinesmith an email stating as much, which Clinesmith then “altered . . . by inserting the words ‘not a source’ into it, thus making it appear that the liaison had said that Page was ‘not a source’ for the [CIA].”

“Relying upon this altered email,” the report goes on, Clinesmith “signed the third renewal application that again failed to disclose Page’s past relationship with the other agency.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) put a finer point on it in his exchange with Horowitz on Wednesday:

Cruz: A lawyer at the FBI creates fraudulent evidence, alters an email that is in turn used as the basis for a sworn statement to the court that the court relies on. Am I stating that accurately?

Horowitz: That is correct. That is what occurred.

Media spin has made Clinesmith out to be merely a “low-level attorney,” but Horowitz previously described Clinesmith as “the primary FBI attorney assigned to [the Trump-Russia] investigation in early 2017.”

Clinesmith also was criticized at least 56 times in the 2018 inspector general report into the FBI’s Clinton email investigation. Clinesmith, Peter Strzok, and FBI lawyer Lisa Page were among the FBI officials who conveyed bias against Trump in text messages. Among Clinesmith’s many anti-Trump messages was one saying “Viva le resistance,” which he sent in the weeks after Trump’s win.

The 2018 inspector general’s report shows Clinesmith claimed his messages reflected only his personal views, and that his work was unaffected by them. Clinesmith reportedly is now under criminal investigation for altering the email.

“Lack of Political Bias” Is Not a Clear Conclusion

Horowitz concluded in his report that he could not “find documentary or testimonial evidence of intentional misconduct,” or that “political bias or improper motivation” influenced the decision to begin the investigation.

In Wednesday’s hearing, however, Horowitz also noted he “did not receive satisfactory explanations for the errors or problems” that he identified in the FBI’s work. He made note of the fact that his investigation was limited solely to the Department of Justice, so he did not review all of the records that the FBI received or reviewed from other agencies, or the actions other agencies took in relation to the Trump investigation.

The FBI uses unrelated intelligence briefings to spy on their subjects⁠—presidential candidates, and even senators?

According to Horowitz’s report, as part of their surveillance on the Trump campaign, the FBI used an intelligence briefing with then-candidate Trump to gather intelligence against Trump and retired Lt. General Michael Flynn.

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign received an identical briefing, but hers was not used by the FBI to collect information on the candidate or her team, Horowitz told the committee.

“The briefings were identical,” Horowitz said, “but one was for investigative purposes, and one was purely for the intelligence briefing.”

In a particularly shocking moment in the hearing, Graham told Horowitz that senators receive the same type of intelligence briefings, and asked if they should also assume the FBI is using these briefings to spy on senators.

Graham: The FBI used a defensive counterintelligence briefing to spy on Trump. The FBI even wrote up 302s on the meeting. The Senate is being defensively briefed tomorrow. Is the FBI going to be spying on us and writing up our conversation?

Horowitz: I’m concerned about that.

If senators can’t even trust the FBI not to abuse its powers of surveillance for political purposes, how should the rest of us feel?

Shockingly, Senate Democrats continued throughout the hearing to refer to the FBI’s gross abuse of power as “mistakes.”

“Mistakes?” Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) replied with disbelief at one point. “It’s not like ‘oops I just filed a FISA warrant.’”

Yes, the party that just two weeks ago published the phone records of a sitting member of Congress and a member of the press is also now making light of the FBI intentionally deceiving the FISA court to engage in the government’s most robust form of surveillance.

The Democrats used to champion civil liberties. Their outright hatred for Trump has broken their brains.

The FISA Process Desperately Needs Reform

Setting the politics aside, this entire episode demonstrates how badly the FISA process is in need of reform. The FISA courts need stronger teeth to ensure that agencies like the FBI stop thinking they are above oversight and accountability. They also need judges who rigorously will enforce the high standards the FBI must meet in exchange for vast surveillance power.

Reform efforts like this have not been prioritized by the GOP⁠—in fact, they’ve historically been resisted. But Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has been warning for years of the FBI’s potential to violate individual rights under the current legal regime. It seems his warnings have, unfortunately, proven prescient.

The Horowitz report gave us an inside look at the state of our national security surveillance operation. And it was ugly. The rampant abuse has been discovered and documented. It must now urgently be addressed.

About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.