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Justice inspector general report on Russia probe lands as impeachment heightens

Justice Dept. Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz testifies to the house committee on June 19, 2018 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON  — A highly anticipated report into the early days of the Russia investigation is set to be released Monday, likely bringing with it a host of revelations about the FBI’s internal decision-making in the fraught period before the 2016 election that could be fodder for President Donald Trump amid a bruising impeachment inquiry.

But the report from the Justice Department’s inspector general hyped for weeks by the President and his allies is expected to mostly undercut a narrative pushed by the White House that the Russia investigation was driven by political bias.

The report is also said to conclude that the Russia probe was properly launched but that lower-level FBI employees made a series of mistakes as they carried it out, people familiar with the matter told CNN.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz opened the probe early last year, and his office has reviewed more than 1 million records and conducted more than 100 interviews as part of its review, including a number of current and former law enforcement officials at the center of “deep state” conspiracies.

The FBI counterintelligence investigation opened in the summer of 2016 examined potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It later was picked up by special counsel Robert Mueller, and has been a chief grievance for Trump, who regularly derides it as a “witch hunt” and an attempted coup.

Regardless of its findings, the report is certain to be weaponized by Republicans who have been battling back weeks of bad headlines about the President’s pressure campaign against the Ukrainians and an ongoing impeachment inquiry.

“I.G. report out tomorrow. That will be the big story!” Trump tweeted Sunday.

How the FBI probe started

Horowitz’s investigation centered on a series of warrants that the FBI filed with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as they sought to investigate Carter Page, a one-time foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

The warrants were signed by top Justice Department officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, and stated that the FBI believed that Page “has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government,” according to redacted copies released last year.

To bolster their request to the surveillance court, the FBI relied at times on claims about the Trump campaign collected in a dossier of unverified intelligence reports by former British spy Christopher Steele.

The FBI wrote in the applications that Steele had a history of providing reliable information to the FBI and that they believed that the reporting of his that they cited was “credible.” But FBI investigators noted in later iterations of the warrant that they had severed their relationship with Steele because he shared some of his findings with news organizations.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee who released findings on a study of the FISA warrants have accused the FBI of improperly withholding information from the surveillance court about Steele’s political beliefs, as well as the fact that his work was backed financially at one point by the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

People familiar with the report told CNN that it is expected to conclude that Page was appropriately targeted for surveillance and that the FBI acted properly as it disassociated itself from Steele after his contacts with the media were uncovered.

Horowitz’s office interviewed Steele as part of its investigation.

Horowitz, who took office in 2012 after an appointment from President Barack Obama, has built a reputation as a thorough investigator who has the ability to rankle Democrats and Republicans alike.

His office’s blockbuster report into the FBI’s handling of the investigations of Hillary Clinton, released in 2018, excoriated Comey for “extraordinary and insubordinate” moves that, along with the revelation of Strzok and Pages text messages, did lasting damage to the FBI’s reputation, although ultimately concluded that their actions were not motivated by political bias.

Horowitz also released a report in August finding that Comey violated FBI policies when he retained and leaked a set of memos he took documenting meetings with Trump in 2017.

The inspector general is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Conclusions

The report will accuse a former FBI lawyer of altering a document related to the Page surveillance, CNN reported last month. That lawyer is under criminal investigation and his alleged conduct is part of Durham’s review.

While it’s unclear how significant a role the altered document played in the FBI’s investigation of Page, Horowitz did not determine that it undermined the overall validity of the surveillance, sources said.

The report is also expected to conclude that officials at the FBI had enough information to properly launch the investigation in 2016, and dispel the claim that US intelligence agencies tried to plant spies in the Trump campaign.

Trump has boosted that narrative without evidence for months and popularized the term “Spy-gate.” The conspiracy is a frequent topic in the conservative media and often revolves around Joseph Mifsud, a secretive Maltese professor who played a role in the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation.

Mifsud had interactions with George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to the FBI.

US intelligence agencies were said to have told Horowitz that Misfud was not an asset for Western intelligence agencies, which is a claim spread by Papadopoulos and other conservative figures.

Horowitz’s report is also expected to discuss the specific roles of a number of controversial FBI officials involved in the early days of the Russia probe, including Peter Strzok, a former senior counterintelligence officer, Lisa Page, an attorney, Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director, and Comey, the former director, who have since left the law enforcement agency under a pall.

Strzok, who had an extramarital affair with Page and exchanged anti-Trump messages with her on an FBI phone, was fired, as was McCabe, who had been accused of lying about contacts with a reporter in a separate investigation by Horowitz’s office. Both men have sued the agency in relation to their departures.

McCabe is now a CNN contributor.

More to come

The report will not be the final word on the Russia investigation’s legitimacy, and Trump has already foreshadowed a separate investigation being conducted out of the Justice Department by veteran prosecutor John Durham.

That probe was launched earlier this year by Attorney General William Barr, a longtime skeptic of the Russia probe. People familiar with Barr’s thinking have told CNN that despite the conclusions in the Horowitz report, Barr still has questions about some of the intelligence and other information the FBI used to pursue the Russia investigation, and he has been telling allies to wait for Durham, who he thinks will provide a more complete accounting.

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