FBI’s Wray Acts Fast to Make Changes After Scathing Report
Monday, February 10th, 2020 @ 3:47PM
WASHINGTON—FBI Director Christopher Wray has ordered more than 40 changes in how the bureau seeks secret surveillance warrants and handles other matters after the Justice Department inspector general pointed out a series of flaws in the bureau’s efforts to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser.
The problems were so severe, national security officials said, they will require reforms to both Federal Bureau of Investigation policy and culture akin to those that followed the uncovering of post-9/11 civil-liberties abuses.
Some people involved in the investigation attributed the problems the inspector general unearthed to a rush to quickly investigate grave allegations and determine their veracity, but current and former officials largely agreed that some fixes are necessary.
Many of the changes—which are already being implemented—aim to improve the way FBI employees seek wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires that applications for surveillance be reviewed by a special court operating in secret.
The main issues identified by Inspector General Michael Horowitz stem from the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, which began in October 2016, shortly after he had left the campaign. The warrant was renewed three times, and continued through much of 2017.
The FBI’s probe eventually became special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign was involved in it.
While Mr. Horowitz found that the bureau had sufficient justification to open the investigation, the problems occurred in how the FBI sought the warrant in the first instance and, especially, in the renewals.
Mr. Horowitz’s report said FBI agents withheld some information from the Justice Department and the FISA court that could have undercut allegations in their application, including about the reliability of a source they cited heavily. They also made inaccurate statements, which weren’t supported by the evidence they obtained, in the applications to the court, the report said.
Mr. Wray, a Trump appointee who has been running the bureau since August 2017, is requiring semiannual training for FBI employees who work on FISA surveillance and handle confidential human sources, building on Mr. Horowitz’s recommendations.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz this week discussed his report on the FBI’s practices before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill.
PHOTO: JEFF MALET/ZUMA PRESS
also ordered changes to the human-source program that include providing more information about such sources on surveillance applications, creating new certifications for information originating from these sources, and requiring the sources’ handling agents to confirm the information.
Those changes, implemented shortly before Mr. Horowitz made his report public, were designed in part to address Mr. Horowitz’s criticism that the FBI didn’t confirm the language it used to describe Christopher Steele —a former British intelligence agent who was paid by Democrats to research Mr. Trump’s connections to Russia and also provided information to the FBI—with the FBI agent who served as Mr. Steele’s primary contact. The language was found to be inaccurate.
The surveillance application also didn’t include negative information the bureau received about the accuracy of Mr. Steele’s prior information and its inability to corroborate Mr. Steele’s Russia information when agents spoke to one of his primary sources, the report said.
Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who was surveilled by the FBI.
PHOTO: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES
The bureau also is tightening the process agents use to seek surveillance warrants to minimize mistakes, Mr. Wray said. And he is putting most politically sensitive investigations primarily in the hands of field employees who have applicable experience, rather than running them out of the offices of senior leadership at FBI headquarters, as the Russia investigation largely was in 2016. Any exceptions would need the deputy director’s approval.
Mr. Horowitz said that the earlier decision by FBI leadership to run the Russia investigation from FBI headquarters—which the officials defended as necessary to prevent leaks and allow for better coordination with other agencies—made it more difficult to quickly deploy investigative resources.
“The FBI will take appropriate disciplinary action where warranted” against remaining employees who were involved in seeking to monitor Mr. Page, Mr. Wray said, offering no timeline and noting that many of the main officials described in the report have been fired, resigned or otherwise left the agency.
Mr. Wray could seek to remove low-level agents involved in the surveillance applications for Mr. Page from national security work, according to people familiar with the process.
The reforms proposed by the FBI would affect only how the bureau handles the drafting of warrants. Any wholesale changes would need to be approved by Congress, which set up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 1978.
Still, further changes could be in the offing. A federal prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William Barr is conducting a separate, criminal investigation into some of the same issues the inspector general examined. Mr. Barr has said the review could mean changes in the way the government opens politically sensitive counterintelligence probes.
And several Republican members of Congress, who have long been supporters of the national security authorities given to the government, have indicated increased skepticism of the overall FISA system and hinted that they may support reforms or allow some of the existing parts of the law to lapse when they are up for renewal.
Carrie Cordero, a former national security lawyer in the Justice Department now at the Center for a New American Security, said: “I’m very concerned about the direction that the FISA debate is going.
“On one hand, there have been individuals who have long been critics of FISA who view this as an opportunity to propose and eventually obtain a whole realm of changes and restrictions to the law that they want,” she said. “And that is converging with the fact that FISA is being used for political purposes—or being maligned for political purposes—by people who know that it’s an important authority for national security but are doing it anyway.”
Agents are privately concerned that the internal changes might make it overly cumbersome to conduct the kind of electronic surveillance crucial in national security investigations, said Frank Montoya, a former FBI counterintelligence official who is in contact with current employees.
“Everyone recognizes the changes must be made, but people are also concerned that it’s just going to make it harder to do their jobs,” he said. And there is concern within the bureau that political pressure will mean harsher punishments for some employees, he said: “We get it, but at the same time, there’s a lot of fear.”
—Dustin Volz and Byron Tau contributed to this article.