WASHINGTON – An internal Justice Department review found new problems with the FBI’s management of secret wiretap applications, concluding that the documents supporting the requests routinely contained errors or “inadequately supported facts.”
In an analysis of more than two dozen wiretap applications drawn from eight FBI field offices during the past two months, the DOJ inspector general concluded that “we do not have confidence” that the bureau followed standards to ensure the accuracy of the wiretap requests.
The report builds on a harshly critical assessment of the FBI’s surveillance activities issued in December, focusing on its handling of multiple wiretap applications for the monitoring of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
In that review, the inspector general identified 17 separate inaccuracies in the surveillance applications, effectively inflating the justification for monitoring Page starting in the fall of 2016.
That report prompted a wave of criticism of the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and threatened the renewal of surveillance authorities deemed critical by the Justice Department. The most vocal of those critics was President Donald Trump who repeatedly called the Russia investigation a “witch-hunt.”
The new assessment by the inspector general effectively concludes that its early critique of the FBI was not an aberration.
In four of the 29 applications reviewed, the report found that the supporting documents –known as “Woods Files” – for the wiretap applications could not be located. In three of those instances, agents did not know whether the underlying information existed at all.
“Files identified apparent errors or inadequately supported facts in all of the 25 (fully-complete) applications we reviewed, and interviews to date with available agents or supervisors in field offices generally have confirmed the issues we identified,” the report concluded.
“We believe that the repeated weaknesses in the FBI’s execution of the Woods procedures in each of the 29 applications we reviewed to date … raise significant questions about the extent to which the FBI is complying with its own requirement that (surveillance) applications be supported by documentation in the Woods File,” the report found.
The inspector general’s review included an examination of 34 reports generated by the FBI and the Justice Department’s National Security Division that assessed the accuracy of surveillance applications involving 42 subjects, from 2014 to 2019.
In cases involving 39 of the 42 subjects, the inspector general identified “about 390 issues, including unverified, inaccurate, or inadequately supported facts, as well as typographical errors.”
The inspector general said investigators had not completed an analysis of the FBI-NSD assessments, so the report made no determination on whether officials corrected the errors in subsequent surveillance requests.
Republican lawmakers seized on the inspector general’s findings and renewed calls for changes to wiretap authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would summon Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to discuss recommendations for changes to the program.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was “alarmed” by the findings.
“If the FBI is going to seek secret authority to infringe the civil liberties of an American citizen, they at least need to show their work,” Grassley said. “FBI rules demand FISA applications be ‘scrupulously accurate’ and backed up by supporting documents to prove their accuracy.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who has repeatedly challenged the FBI’s work, said Tuesday that the inspector general’s report indicated that surveillance abuses were “even worse than we thought.”
The FBI said Monday that it was implementing more than 40 actions to address the inspector general’s findings, including a training program for agents working sensitive cases across the country.
“The FBI’s work product and adherence to sound processes must meet the highest possible standard,” FBI Associate Deputy Director Paul Abbate said in the bureau’s written response.
Abbate said the inspector general’s review covered a “sample” number of applications but did not make judgments on whether the requests were justified.
“Nevertheless, the inspector general’s findings underscore the importance of more than 40 corrective actions” ordered by FBI Director Christopher Wray after the review in December, Abbate said.
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