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DOJ inspector general finds Russia probe was appropriately opened — but Barr disagrees

A long-awaited report into the origins of the Russia probe found no evidence of a political conspiracy against President Trump. But the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized the FBI’s handling of wiretap applications used in the early stages of the investigation. William Brangham reports and Judy Woodruff talks to John Carlin, former assistant attorney general for national security.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A long-awaited report into the origins of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election has found no evidence of a political conspiracy against the president.

    But the Justice Department's inspector general criticized the FBI's handling of wiretap applications used in the early stages of the investigation.

    Our William Brangham was at the Department of Justice today. He's been looking into this 400-plus pages of the report, and he joins me now.

    William, you have the report right next to you.

    Tell us, first of all, the headlines from this.

  • William Brangham:

    The headline, as you touched on, is that the inspector general that there was found no political bias in the origins of the Russia report.

    As we have been reporting for years now, President Trump has constantly said this was a witch-hunt, that bad cops in the FBI ginned up this investigation illegally to put him in jeopardy.

    And this report quite clearly says that that's not true.

    I'd like to read you this one key quote from the report. It says — quote — "We didn't find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open four individual investigations."

    So, they're saying also that there was no role played by the infamous Steele dossier in the beginning of this investigation. And it also says that the FBI, contrary to the president's assertions, didn't spy on his campaign.

    Let's listen today. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, came out after this report was released. Here's what he had to say.

  • Christopher Wray:

    I think it's important that the inspector general found that, in this particular instance, the investigation was opened with appropriate predication and authorization.

    The inspector general did find a number of instances where employees either failed to follow our policies, neglected to exercise appropriate diligence, or in some other way fell short of the standard of conduct and performance that we and that I, as director, expect of all of our employees.

  • William Brangham:

    So, while you can read part of this report as a rebuttal of the president's theories all along, it certainly seemed like his mind wasn't changed by this.

    The president also, after the report came out today, had this to say about the investigation:

  • President Donald Trump:

    They fabricated evidence, and they lied to the courts, and they did all sorts of things to have it go their way. And this was something that we can never allow that to happen again.

    The report actually, and especially when you look into it and the details of the report, are far worse than anything I would have even imagined. This was an overthrow of government. This was an attempted overthrow, and a lot of people were in on it. And they got caught.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, William, the president is saying that there's evidence here of bad behavior by the FBI. Is that what's in this report?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    I mean, the president is right in that regard. The other headline really coming out of this report is that the inspector general found a lot of what he argues were serious mistakes made by FBI agents after the investigation was launched, specifically looking at the FISA warrant that they used against one Trump campaign aide named Carter Page.

    The inspector general said that there were omissions and errors and embellishments in these documents. The FISA warrant, if you remember all of this, is, if you want to open a foreign intelligence investigation into a person, you have to present this court with a warrant.

    And the inspector general says that in the FBI's case, the warrants that they put forward left evidence out that didn't bolster their case. They looked over contradictory information, and basically didn't provide truly scrupulously factual warrants.

    This is another quote from the report today, specifically about this criticism — quote — "That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate hand-picked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations raised significant questions regarding the FBI's chain of command's management and supervision of the FISA process."

    In fact, today, in this report, the inspector general announced that the FBI will now be conducting an audit of how they undergo these FISA warrants going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So this report is from the inspector general at the Department of Justice.

    The man who heads the Department of Justice, the attorney general, William Barr, put out a statement that was critical of this, which is interesting.

  • William Brangham:

    It is. Interesting is a nice way to put it. It's a very, very divergent reaction going on here.

    As you remember, Attorney General Barr has long said he thought spying did occur against the Trump campaign. He has been publicly suspicious of the origins of the Russia probe. Again, this report seems to have changed his mind not one bit.

    Here's a statement he said today: "The inspector general's report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken. It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory."

    Again, this is just a very striking reaction. This is the attorney general taking direct aim at his own inspector general and saying that, in some sense, his findings documented in this huge report are not to be believed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, in so doing, he's completely in alliance with the president's view on this.

  • William Brangham:

    Exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, finally, William, we know this is not the end of this. There are still — still several more shoes to drop. Tell us about that.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes.

    On Wednesday — the inspector general, Horowitz, who wrote this report, he will be testifying before the Senate on Wednesday. There is also a second broader investigation going on. Attorney General William Barr tasked Connecticut assistant U.S. attorney John Durham to lead a wider investigation, one that's now become a criminal investigation, also looking in the origins of the Russia investigation, how that went forward, and what role foreign countries might have played in that.

    So, Durham is undertaking this much broader investigation. The president seems to be banking a lot on what Durham will find. And, in fact, Durham made the striking statement today where he said this: "Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month, we advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report's conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened."

    Again, it's just a very striking point, where a U.S. attorney, who theoretically is underneath the inspector general, seems to be openly criticizing the inspector general.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you had the attorney general with a comment. You have this — the other prosecutor, in effect, making his own reaction, as well as the president.

    William Brangham, thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, for more on the inspector general's report, I am joined by John Carlin. He served as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's National Security Division from 2014 to 2016, and he was also Robert Mueller's chief of staff when Mueller was director of the FBI.

    And John Carlin joins me now from Phoenix, Arizona.

    So, John, I just want to say at the outset that your name is mentioned in this 400-plus-page report in two footnotes. We have looked at them both. They are tangential references, so we're not going to go into that detail.

    I do want to get, though, to the meat of this. What is your principal takeaway from it?

  • John Carlin:

    Well, Judy, after two years, a million documents, over, what, 50, 70 interviews by an independent inspector general, you have a conclusion that the FBI appropriately followed its procedures in opening the Russia investigation.

    They followed the rules of the Justice Department and the FBI. And because they followed those rules, we had an investigation that led to the unpacking and discovery of an unprecedented Russian intelligence conspiracy, which cost tens of millions of dollars, included computer hacking, leaked documents, exploitation of social media campaigns, and has led to 30 successful indictments, in some cases convictions, of individuals for criminal misconduct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you also had, as William Brangham just laid out, description of errors made along the way by individuals in the FBI and others who were working on this investigation.

  • John Carlin:

    No, that's right and should be taken seriously.

    But, first, to distinguish, what the inspector general found was that the investigation itself, the broad Russia investigation, was appropriately opened under FBI and Department of Justice procedures.

    After it was opened, the inspector general details mistakes that were made in the application process regarding the investigation of one of the individuals, part of that broader investigation, and that those mistakes linked to the obtaining one application that was then renewed for a wiretap. And that's regarding Carter Page.

    We should definitely — and I think the FBI director, Christopher Wray, struck exactly the appropriate note in saying that any — any type of mistake or misconduct in obtaining a wiretap under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is serious, it should be looked at for process improvements, so that that doesn't occur again.

    It doesn't change the fundamental funding, though, that that occurred after this investigation was launched and opened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    John Carlin, how do you account for the reaction of the attorney general, who clearly has problems with the thrust of this report?

  • John Carlin:

    Look, it's — he, of course, is entitled to his own opinion, but his opinion is not the rules under which the then assistant director of the Counterintelligence Division, Bill Priestap, was operating when he opened the investigation.

    And in some respects, good thing it wasn't, at least the way I'm interpreting the remarks, because if we had an Attorney General Barr's opinion, instead of the rules and procedures of the FBI, it seems like we would never have found out and held accountable numerous Russian agents for their attempts to interfere in the 2016 campaign.

    I hope he applies a different standard when we're looking to determine foreign interference coming up in our 2020 election. And it sends an unfortunate message to the men and women of the FBI and the Department of Justice, thousands of career agents and prosecutors, who day to day are dedicated to protecting us from foreign threats against our nation, that their leader, the top official of the Justice Department, in no way recognizes what they did right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Carlin, former Justice Department official, thank you.

  • John Carlin:

    Thank you.

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