Civil Liberties

The FBI's Sloppy FISA Surveillance Is Exposed

The findings shared by Inspector General Michael Horowitz revealed some rotten practices at the FBI and a major media blindspot.


In December, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Justice Department released a highly anticipated report on the FBI's investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign's Russia connection. The findings shared by Inspector General Michael Horowitz didn't tell us anything new about President Donald Trump's campaign, but they did reveal some rotten practices at the FBI and a major media blindspot.

Most outlets focused on the OIG's failure to turn up evidence that the FBI launched its investigation into Trump and Russia in order to help Hillary Clinton or to undermine his presidency, as Trump has long alleged. Many of those same outlets acted as if nothing else in the OIG report mattered. A CNN article, for instance, called the Russia probe "legal and unbiased" before conceding that a "low-level FBI lawyer" made "serious mistakes." CNN and MSNBC anchors also invited former and current bureau leaders to come on TV and claim vindication. Yet the FBI's malfeasance is a lot scarier and more complicated than a single lawyer's mistakes.

Inspector General Horowitz found 17 "serious performance failures" relating to warrants obtained by the FBI through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts for the purposes of monitoring Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The FISA warrant, which was reauthorized three times, contained false and misleading information about Page: It omitted that he had previously disclosed his Russian contacts to a government agency; it overstated the government's confidence in the infamous Christopher Steele dossier and ignored Steele's own doubts about one of his sources; it declined to mention that Page had said he and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had "literally never met"; and in general it ignored information that undermined the theory that Page was a Russian asset.

"When the Justice Department's Inspector General finds significant concerns regarding flawed surveillance applications concerning the president's campaign advisors, it is clear that this regime lacks basic safeguards and is in need of serious reform," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, in a statement. "The system requires fundamental reforms, and Congress can start by providing defendants subjected to FISA surveillance the opportunity to review the government's secret submissions."

Trump and his supporters were mistaken to attribute to malicious conspiracy what is better explained by bureaucratic incompetence, but the latter is not necessarily less dangerous. The OIG gave America its most intimate glimpse ever of the FBI's internal workings. What it revealed doesn't bode well for liberty.