When Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, released a report that criticized the secret FBI surveillance of a former Trump campaign advisor in 2016 and 2017, initial reports suggested the FBI had been too aggressive.
But a close reading of the 434-page report, and interviews with current and former agents, suggest the FBI may have been too cautious, especially in the early stages of the investigation.
The reason? The FBI was trying to stay out of politics.
Worried about leaks, the bureau kept the investigative team small. It barred the use of subpoenas and other aggressive tools. And it ran the inquiry from Washington, not one of its 56 field offices.
Partly as a result, it took more than two months for a former British spy’s report to reach the right FBI investigators. And a constant reshuffling of agents and staff led to communication lapses and loss of institutional knowledge.
“The investigation was unprecedented, and the bureau was trying to do what it could to stay out of the election,” said a former FBI official. “The investigation got handcuffed by some of that. There was turnover. There was some confusion. But I’m not sure how it could have been handled differently.”
James B. Comey, who headed the FBI at the time, told the inspector general that he advised agents and analysts to tread carefully in Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI code name for the probe.
“It’s smoke we see,” Comey said, according to the report. “We don’t know whether there’s fire there.”
But Comey had undergone withering criticism for his decision, announced on July 5, 2016, not to charge Hillary Clinton, the expected Democratic presidential nominee, for using a private computer server when she was secretary of State. The FBI would reopen that probe in October, and again decide not to charge her.
As far as is known, the FBI had never investigated a major-party candidate during a presidential campaign. In 2016, it launched investigations that had serious implications for both candidates, an extraordinary development that required unusual care.
Most FBI investigations are conducted out of field offices, where agents have access to support staff, surveillance teams and other assets.
But senior FBI officials worried that Crossfire Hurricane was too sensitive, so they ran it out of headquarters. They brought field agents to Washington on 90-day temporary duty shifts, causing management headaches.
Then, in January 2017, the FBI transferred day-to-day operations to the New York, Chicago and Washington field offices. But it reversed course four months later and brought the probe back to headquarters.
A top analyst believed the “shifting makeup of the teams and the changing leadership created a divide between the analysts and the agents, which resulted in less interaction between the two groups,” the inspector general reported.
In the early months of the investigation, the FBI didn’t seem to make much progress in the probe. A Justice Department prosecutor who attended regular briefings on the inquiry said it “seemed pretty slow-moving.” The acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, told the inspector general that the investigation seemed to lack a sense of urgency.
Crossfire Hurricane was officially launched on July 31, 2016, five days after an Australian diplomat in London told the State Department that the Trump campaign might be colluding with the Russian government.
The diplomat told U.S. officials that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign advisor, had informed him in May that the Trump team “had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging” to Clinton, according to the inspector general.
WikiLeaks already had begun publishing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, and the FBI suspected Russian operatives were responsible.
The counterintelligence investigation focused on Papadopoulos and three other people associated with Trump’s campaign. All three were already on the FBI’s radar.
Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign chairman, had extensive ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and was already the target of an FBI money-laundering and tax-evasion inquiry. Manafort quit the campaign in August, and was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison in mid-2018 after he was convicted of multiple financial crimes.
Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump campaign advisor, had traveled to Russia and had ties to Russian-affiliated organizations. Flynn was ousted in 2017 after less than a month as Trump’s national security advisor and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. He has not been sentenced.
Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in jail for lying to the FBI. Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy advisor until September 2016, was linked to Russia-owned entities and had visited Russia that July. He was not charged with a crime.
In July 2016, the FBI suspected Page, an energy consultant, was working for Russian intelligence. That October, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court agreed to let the FBI secretly gather Page’s emails, phone calls and other communications. The court would renew the warrant three times, until mid-2017.
But the FBI made 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, court applications, and did not provide satisfactory explanations for the mistakes, the inspector general found.
On Tuesday, the presiding judge of the FISA court, Rosemary M. Collyer, ordered the bureau to explain how it would improve its applications. She added a rare public criticism, saying the inspector general’s report “calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable.”
In mid-September 2016, the FBI sent informants to talk to Papadopoulos and Page, as well as an unidentified high-ranking campaign official, and secretly record them. They did not put any undercover agents or informants in the Trump campaign.
But the informants didn’t find proof of cooperation with Russia. Instead, the inspector general said, Page and Papadopoulos offered information that cut against the FBI’s theories.
There was another problem.
On July 5, a former British spy and longtime FBI informant, Christopher Steele, gave an FBI agent in Europe the first of what would become a series of intelligence reports about Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia and potential collusion between his associates and Moscow.
A political research firm in Washington had hired Steele, originally for a Republican campaign. The work ultimately was funded by Democrats.
The agent contacted counterintelligence agents in New York to ask where to send the material. A month later, he emailed the New York office again, asking what he should do.
“The stuff is burning a hole,” the agent wrote.
The Steele reports did not reach the Crossfire Hurricane team for two more weeks, on Sept. 19. An agent called the delay excessive and said it hampered the FBI’s ability to vet Steele’s information and assess its value.
The dossier would tip the scales in favor of obtaining the first warrant on Page from the FISA court. The FBI’s reliance on Steele’s material would become a controversial part of the investigation.
Former FBI officials said the long delay likely resulted from the Crossfire Hurricane team’s low profile — nobody outside a select circle knew what they were doing or how important the work was.
That was by design. The inspector general found that Andrew McCabe, then the FBI deputy director, had told the team to “get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible, but with a light footprint.”