When the Department of Justice inspector general released his report
on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse, coverage focused on the top-line findings contained in the executive summary. Then the news cycle whizzed by, leaving many details discussed throughout the 480-page tome unexplored.
One significant gap in media coverage concerns the potential complicity of former FBI Director James Comey in the FISA abuse—a possibility the IG report hints at in several spots. The first suggestion that something was amiss with Comey’s conduct came early in Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report, when the IG’s office spoke of the methodology underlying the FISA investigation.
“Certain former FBI employees who agreed to interviews, including Comey and Baker, chose not to request that their security clearances be reinstated for their OIG interviews,” read the IG report. “Therefore, we were unable to provide classified information or documents to them during their interviews to develop their testimony, or to assist their recollections of relevant events.”
Taken alone, this perfunctory comment might have meant little, but the IG report would stress this point several more times throughout its 400-plus-page analysis of FBI misconduct.
Consider the Bruce Ohr Contradictions
For instance, according to the IG report, Baker said “he obtained more information regarding Ohr’s interactions with Steele during a Crossfire Hurricane leadership meeting with Comey and McCabe in spring 2017.” Baker further stated that “he learned that Ohr was providing to the FBI information that Ohr had received from Steele,” and, in Baker’s view, “this [was] not good.”
But Comey told the IG “he had no knowledge of Ohr’s communications with members of the Crossfire Hurricane investigative team and only discovered Ohr’s association with Steele and the Crossfire Hurricane investigation when the media reported on it.” Comey’s claims, though, conflicted with both Baker’s statements, and “notes taken by Strzok during a November 23, 2016 Crossfire Hurricane update meeting” that Comey attended.
Those notes referenced “a discussion at the meeting concerning ‘strategy for engagement [with Handling Agent 1] and Ohr’ regarding Steele’s reporting.” Strzok also told the IG that “he believed he informed FBI leadership that Ohr approached the FBI concerning his relationship with Steele and that Ohr relayed Steele’s information regarding Russia to the team.”
However, as the IG report explained, “because Strzok’s notes of the meeting were classified at the time we interviewed Comey, and Comey chose not to have his security clearances reinstated for his OIG interview, we were unable to show him the notes and ask about the reference in them to Steele and Ohr.”
The Same Happened with Loretta Lynch
The IG report also stressed Comey’s lack of a security clearance in discussing inconsistencies between his and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s statements to the IG. The report noted that “Lynch told the OIG that after one of her weekly security meetings at FBI Headquarters in the spring of 2016, Comey and McCabe pulled her aside and provided information about Carter Page, which Lynch believed they learned from another member of the Intelligence Community.”
Lynch further stated that Comey and McCabe informed her that “Russian intelligence reportedly planned to use Page for information and to develop other contacts in the United States, and that they were interested in his affiliation with the campaign.” According to the IG report, Lynch’s “understanding was that this information from Comey and McCabe was ‘preliminary’ in that they did not state that any decisions or actions needed to be taken that day.”
Lynch added that “they discussed the possibility of providing a defensive briefing to the Trump campaign, but she believed it was ‘preliminary’ and ‘something that might happen down the road,’” but that “she did not recall receiving any further updates on this issue following this conversation.”
The IG report noted that “Lynch’s recollection of what Comey and McCabe told her is consistent with information referenced in connection with the 2015 [Southern District of New York] indictment and subsequent conviction of a Russian intelligence officer referenced earlier in this chapter.” However, “Comey told the OIG that he did not recall having such a conversation with Lynch, and that he did not think it was possible for such a conversation to have occurred in the spring of 2016 because the FBI did not receive the [Friendly Foreign Government] information concerning Papadopoulos until late July.”
Further Inconsistencies in Comey’s Page Statements
Comey also told the IG that “he did not recall himself having any knowledge of Carter Page’s existence until the middle of 2016.” But, as the IG report stressed, Comey’s statements are called into question by “internal email communications” that reflect that in April 2016, the New York Field Office “prepared summaries of the information that ultimately led NYFO to open a counterintelligence investigation on Carter Page on April 6, 2016.” Those were provided to officials at headquarters “for a ‘Director’s note; and a separate ‘Director’s Brief’ to be held on April 27, 2016.”
Notwithstanding these inconsistencies, the IG report stressed, that the IG “was unable to question Comey further using classified details Lynch described to us because, as noted in Chapter One, Comey choose not to have his security clearances reinstated for our interview.”
The IG report then stresses twice more Comey’s lack of a security clearance as a reason investigators were unable to assess Comey’s level of knowledge of the facts misstated in the FISA applications. In discussing “the extent of FBI leadership’s knowledge as to each fact stated incorrectly or omitted from the FISA applications”—seven significant inaccuracies and omissions in total—the IG stressed that multiple factors made it difficult to assess the knowledge of the FBI hierarchy.
“These factors included, among other things,” the IG report noted, “limited recollections, the inability to question Comey or refresh his recollection with relevant, classified documentation because of his lack of a security clearance, and the absence of meeting minutes that would show the specific details shared with Comey and McCabe during briefings they received, beyond the more general investigative updates that we know they were provided.”
Comey Simply Can’t Recall So Many Things
However, while noting the IG’s inability to determine the “extent of FBI leadership’s knowledge,” the report highlighted reasons to believe such knowledge existed: “As the FBI’s senior leaders, Comey and McCabe would have had greater access to case information than Department leadership and also more interaction with senior [Counterintelligence Division] officials and the investigation team. Further, as described in Chapter Three, [Counterintelligence Division] officials orally briefed the Crossfire Hurricane cases to FBI senior leadership throughout the investigation. McCabe received more briefings than Comey, but both received oral briefings of the team’s investigative activities.”
The IG then reiterated this point later, stating that although they “found no evidence that Comey had been made aware of these issues at the time he certified the application,” there were multiple factors making it “difficult for us to precisely determine the extent of FBI leadership’s knowledge as to each fact that was not shared with OI and not included, or inaccurately stated, in the FISA applications.”
“These factors,” the IG explained, “included, among other things, limited recollections, the inability to question Comey or refresh his recollection with relevant, classified documentation because of his lack of a security clearance, and the absence of meeting minutes that would show the specific details shared with Comey and McCabe during briefings they received, beyond the more general investigative updates that we know they were provided.”
As these excerpts illustrate, the IG report concluded that several of Comey’s statements were inconsistent with statements provided by other individuals connected with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, as well as other evidence gathered as part of the FISA investigation. Investigators with the IG’s office were unable to resolve the conflicts or to fully assess Comey’s complicity in the filing of the fraudulent FISA applications because Comey claimed limited recall and then refused to have his security clearance reinstated. That prevented the IG team from sharing documents with Comey to either refresh his recollection or to question him about statements made in those classified documents.
Gosh Darnit, I Just Can’t Remember
In short, then, Comey avoided the difficult questions and the possibility of having no satisfactory answers, by hiding behind the lack of his security clearance. Yet, because of the breadth and depth of Horowitz’s investigation, the contradictions in Comey’s testimony and his of gaming the classification system exposed in the IG report has gone unnoticed.
So much so, in fact, that Comey felt comfortable taking a victory lap immediately after the IG report released. But after telling
Chris Wallace the IG report was a “vindication,” when pushed, Comey admitted the FBI did not handle the FISA process in a “thoughtful and appropriate way.” Yet, Comey portrayed himself as a mere “bystander” to the misconduct, telling Wallace:
I was overconfident in the procedures that the FBI and Justice had built over 20 years. I thought they were robust enough. It’s incredibly hard to get a FISA. I was overconfident in those. Because he’s right. There was real sloppiness, 17 things that either should’ve been in the applications or at least discussed and characterized differently. . . I’m responsible for it. That’s why I’m telling you I was wrong. I was overconfident as director in our procedures and it’s important that a leader be accountable and transparent.
However, when asked what he knew about the FISA applications and the misrepresentations and omissions highlighted by Horowitz, Comey deflected, responding, “First, again, the report will speak for itself,” before claiming “I didn’t know the particulars of the investigation. As a director sitting on top of an organization of 38,000 people, you can’t run an investigation that’s seven layers below you.”
Barr Calls Comey Out on National Television
While Wallace did not call Comey out on his claim that the investigation was “seven layers below” him, Attorney General William Barr did a few days later when he joined Martha MacCallum
for an exclusive interview. The Fox News reporter noted that Comey had claimed he “was seven steps removed from what was going on, the director doesn’t get involved in these kinds of things, the actual investigation.” “Do you believe that?” MacCallum queried.
“No,” Barr replied, “I think that one of the problems with what happened was it was run and bird-dogged by a very small group of very high-level officials. And the idea that this was seven layers below him is simply not true.”
Barr also took issue
with Comey’s premise that criticism of the FBI is an attack.
“One of the things that I object to is the tack being taken by Comey, which is to suggest that people who are criticizing or trying to get to the bottom of the misconduct are somehow attacking the FBI. I think that is nonsense,” Barr said
. “We’re criticizing and concerned about misconduct by a few actors at the top of the FBI, and they should be criticized if they engaged in serious misconduct.”
Barr’s correct, of course. But the unanswered question is whether Comey was one of those “few actors at the top” who “engaged in serious misconduct.” The IG report didn’t answer that question, but dropped enough hints to suggest that it’s a real possibility.
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.