Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, making crystal clear what he wrote in his report: The FBI investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia was not politically motivated, but agents involved in the probe made significant and appalling mistakes.
These mistakes should terrify all Americans. But more importantly, they should prompt serious reflection among surveillance state–supporting Republicans who placed implicit trust in the nation's top law enforcement agency, as well as all those in the mainstream media who uncritically boosted the top men in that agency as #Resistance heroes.
The IG's report and testimony have exposed the FBI's wrongful surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, which was based on false and conflicting information that somehow made its way into a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant—and was then included three subsequent times as part of the warrant's reauthorization. FBI agents knew that the Steele dossier was unreliable and eventually learned that Steele's sub-sources had contradicted what was in the report, but continued with the surveillance anyway. Here's an instructive exchange between Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and Horowitz:
Is it kind of off-the-charts bad?
Horowitz: It's pretty bad. pic.twitter.com/t0U812VWjE
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 11, 2019
The irony, of course, is that Graham has been a full-throated defender of FISA courts, domestic surveillance, and other policies that threaten civil liberties. He conceded this during his comments on Wednesday, saying "I'm a pretty hawkish guy, but if the court doesn't take corrective action and do something about being manipulated and lied to, you will lose my support."
The Cassandra of the hour is Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah), who has been one of the only Republicans willing to sound the alarm about the potential for the FBI to violate Americans' rights under the current legal regime. Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.) admitted that Lee's skepticism of the FISA courts now seems justified.
It's a shame that it took congressional Republicans so long to realize that empowering a vast and secretive bureaucracy to spy on people could easily go disastrously wrong—and it's telling that they have only finally conceded the point because the abuses have been directed at Trump. Moreover, despite their sudden interest in reforming FISA, "nearly all Rs joined most Ds today to reauthorize intelligence activities without reforms to protect Americans' rights," according to Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.). I'm glad some Republicans are apparently reconsidering their reflexive trust of the FBI, but clearly they still have a long way to go.
That's true as well for the mainstream media, which for far too long has given undeserved credit to Trump-critical law enforcement figures like former FBI Directors James Comey and Andrew McCabe. Both have been lionized on cable news and in newspapers. They were routinely labeled brave truth-tellers who took serious personal risks to call out wrongdoing within the administration.
Many of their criticisms of the Trump administration may have been well-founded. But under Comey's watch, the FBI made major errors. Comey and McCabe were directly involved in the decision to rely on the Steele dossier—a decision that the CIA had serious concerns about. Comey later misled the public about the extent of the FBI's reliance on the dossier. Indeed, many in the mainstream media had previously claimed that the dossier was not the only basis for the FBI's interest in Page, because they uncritically believed what the G-men were telling them. We now know that's wrong—the Steele dossier was the FBI's key piece of evidence.
Comey is still trying to spin the IG's report as some kind of vindication. This is delusional and embarrassing. If the media learns anything from this episode, it should be that the fact that Team Trump has ostracized an insufficiently deferential public servant is not enough of a reason to embrace him as a hero and a savior.
The IG report is a wakeup call: for Republicans who foolishly claimed the FBI's secretive spying process was necessary and unthreatening, for anti-Trump media pundits who uncritically parroted the talking points of top officials, and for any Americans who still think it is worth trading away their liberties. If government agents were this sloppy during a politically charged investigation that they knew would put their entire apparatus under the spotlight, it's safe to assume their normal conduct is even worse.