Shortly after the release of the special counsel report last year, I posited
that Robert Mueller’s failure to investigate whether Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election by feeding dossier author Christopher Steele disinformation established that Mueller was either incompetent or a political hack. Now, with the release of the inspector general’s report on FISA abuse, we know the answer: He was both.
The IG’s report on the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI’s handling of the Carter Page surveillance applications established 17 significant inaccuracies and omissions in the FISA application and renewals. (Eighteen if you include
the one the IG missed). The 400-page report also established that the special counsel’s office was complicit in the FISA abuse, the probe was a witch hunt, and Mueller’s report was a cover-up for systematic government malfeasance.
Mueller Was As Bad as James Comey
Mueller’s appointment as special counsel prompted bipartisan praise, with the accolades focusing on his stellar reputation as the FBI director under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat President Barack Obama. But Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report revealed a sad reality: The special counsel’s office under Mueller’s charge was just as inept at investigating the false charges of Russia collusion as the FBI was under James Comey’s lead.
As the IG report noted, “on May 17, 2017, the Crossfire Hurricane cases were transferred to the Office of the Special Counsel,” and the FBI agents and analysts then began working with the special counsel. A little more than a month later, the FBI asked the Department of Justice to seek a fourth extension of the Page surveillance order. That fourth renewal obtained under Mueller’s leadership included the 17 significant inaccuracies and omissions the IG identified.
Further, it wasn’t merely a matter of Mueller’s team repeating the same falsehoods. Several of the inaccuracies and omissions presented to the FISA court in the late-June renewal application arose in mistakes or misconduct that occurred after Mueller took the reins of the investigation.
Kept Showing False Information to the FISA Court
Most significantly, in June 2017, the FBI’s office of general counsel falsely represented that Page had not been a source for another federal agency, when, in reality, Page had been approved as an “operational contact” and the FBI’s attorney had been told so in an email. Yet the final surveillance renewal application failed to inform the FISA court that, while Page had connections with individuals connected to Russian intelligence, he had provided information about those contacts to another agency as an approved source.
While blame for this mistake might be put down to the malfeasance of the attorney who altered the email to obscure Page’s relationship with the other agency, given that Page publicly—and likely in private interviews with the FBI—paraded his relationship with the unnamed U.S. agency, Mueller’s team should have done more—not just for purposes of the FISA application, but as part of the special counsel investigation.
Mueller’s inept team instead parroted the point in the special counsel report, stating “Russian intelligence officials had formed relationships with Page in 2008 and 2013” and “Page acknowledged that he understood that the individuals he had associated with were members of the Russian intelligence services, but he stated that he had only provided immaterial non-public information to them.” But Mueller made no mention of Page’s status as an “operational contact” for another agency.
Not only did Mueller’s team continue to push the same inaccuracies and omissions to the FISA court in the June 2017 renewal, the FISA court was not informed of the many mistakes and omissions for another year—even though the special counsel’s investigation should have uncovered many of the errors contained in the applications early on in the probe.
For instance, the IG noted that the FBI’s interview with Steele in September 2017 “was conducted by an FBI agent and analyst on assignment to the Special Counsel’s Office.” That interview “further highlighted discrepancies between Steele’s presentation of information” in the dossier reports relied upon in the FISA applications, and what Steele’s primary sub-source had told FBI agents. Yet the FISA court was not provided this information until July 2018.
Faulty Investigation, Fraudulent Info to the Court
Mueller’s team also knew, by July 2017 at the latest, that Joseph Mifsud—the Maltese professor who supposedly tipped then-Trump aide George Papadopoulos to the Russians having dirt on Hillary Clinton—had denied telling Papadopoulos that the Russians could assist the Trump campaign by leaking negative information on Clinton. Prior to the special counsel’s appointment, the FBI had interviewed Papadopoulos and Mifsud, but it would be the special counsel’s office that indicted Papadopoulos in late July 2017, charging him with lying to the FBI.
By that time, then, the special counsel’s team must have reviewed the notes from the Papadopoulos and Mifsud interviews. Yet Mueller did nothing at that point to ensure the FISA court learned of Mifsud’s denials. The IG found the omission of “Joseph Mifsud’s denials to the FBI that he supplied Papadopoulos with the information Papadopoulos shared with the FFG (suggesting that the campaign received an offer or suggestion of assistance from Russia)” was a significant omission.
In short, the special counsel’s team proved itself equally incompetent in investigating and screening the “intel” used to obtain the Page surveillance orders, and in failing to accurately and fully inform the FISA court (FISC) of the evidence gathered by the FBI. As the IG noted “that so many basic and fundamental errors were made on four FISA applications by three separate, hand-picked teams, on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process.” That also means Mueller and his chain of command.
Perpetuating the FBI’s Misconduct
It also wasn’t mere incompetence on display: The special counsel’s office also engaged in much of the same misconduct the IG identified. For instance, emblematic of Mueller’s complicity in misconduct Horowitz identified is the fact that the special counsel continued to use Bruce Ohr as a conduit to feed “intel” to the FBI from Steele after Steele was terminated as a confidential human source.
The IG concluded that “while the Crossfire Hurricane team did not initiate direct contact with Steele after his closure, it responded to numerous contacts made by Steele through Ohr.” While “Ohr himself was not a direct witness in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” “his purpose in communicating with the FBI was to pass along information from Steele.”
The IG concluded that “given that there were 13 different meetings with Ohr over a period of months, the use of Ohr as a conduit between the FBI and Steele created a relationship by proxy that should have triggered, pursuant to FBI policy, a supervisory decision about whether to reopen Steele as a CHS or discontinue accepting information indirectly from him through Ohr.”
Significantly, the IG noted that after June 2017, “an agent from the Special Counsel’s Office became Ohr’s final point of contact through November 2017.” Thus, Mueller’s team made a concerted decision to continue to use Ohr to obtain “intel” from Steele—a decision the IG condemned.
In fact, the special counsel’s use of Ohr appears even more problematic than the FBI’s prior mishandling of their meetings with Ohr: At least prior to Mueller’s appearance, the FBI documented the details of their conversations with Ohr in FD-302 forms, but as the IG report noted, while Ohr continued to communicate with Steele through the end of November 2017 and passed on the details of those conversations to the FBI, “the FBI did not memorialize any meetings its agents had with Ohr after the Crossfire Hurricane investigation was transferred to the Special Counsel’s Office in May 2017.”
Further, while the special counsel’s team continued to meet with Ohr during this time, no one from Mueller’s group informed DOJ leadership of Ohr’s involvement in the investigation nor his meetings with Steele until “after Congress requested information from the Department regarding Ohr’s activities in late November 2017.”
Hiding Their Activities From Investigators
That the special counsel’s team engaged with Ohr without notifying to Ohr’s superiors shouldn’t surprise, though, as that was the M.O. of Mueller’s pit bull, lawyer Andrew Weissmann. The IG report exposed this reality, in detail. Specifically, the IG report explained that shortly after Trump was elected president
between November 16, 2016 and December 15, 2016, Ohr participated in several meetings that were attended, at various times, by some or all of the following individuals: Swartz, Ahmad, Andrew Weissmann (then Section Chief of CRM’s Fraud Section), Strzok, and Lisa Page. The meetings involving Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann focused on their shared concern that the [Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section] MLARS was not moving quickly enough on the Manafort criminal investigation and whether there were steps they could take to move the investigation forward. The meetings with Strzok and Page focused primarily on whether the FBI could assess the case’s relevance, if any, to the FBI ‘s Russian interference investigation. MLARS was not represented at any of these meetings or told about them, and none of attendees had supervisory responsibility over the MLARS investigation….
On January 31, 2017, one day after Yates was removed as DAG, Ahmad, by then an Acting CRM Deputy Assistant Attorney General, after consulting with Swartz and Weissmann, sent an email to Lisa Page, copying Weissmann, Swartz, and Ohr, requesting a meeting the next day to discuss ‘a few Criminal Division related developments.’ The next day, February 1, Swartz, Ohr, Ahmad, and Weissmann met with Strzok, Lisa Page, and an FBI Acting Section Chief. None of the attendees at the meeting could explain to us what the ‘Criminal Division related developments’ were, and we did not find any.
Meeting notes reflect, among other things, that the group discussed the Manafort criminal investigation and efforts that the Department could undertake to investigate attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 elections. MLARS was not represented at, or told about, the meeting.
The IG report further revealed that, even though Weissmann had no role or responsibility in the MLARS investigation of Manafort, he arranged to meet an AP reporter in late March or early April to obtain information from the media contact “regarding Manafort having a storage locker in Virginia.” This meeting and the “collective interest” Weissmann, Ohr, Swartz, and Amhad had in the MLARS investigation prompted the IG report to note that “given their high-ranking positions in the Department, their ‘unusual level of interest’ in the Manafort investigation could create a perception that the Department was investigating Manafort for inappropriate reasons.”
‘Department leaders cannot…be held accountable for the Department’s actions, if subordinates intentionally withhold information from them.’
The acting chief of the MLARS also indicated concern about the meetings between Ohr, Swartz, Weissmann, and Amhad, telling the IG that she had only learned about those November 2016 to February 2017 meetings as a result of her IG interview.
Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann also told the IG that they had not advised their supervisors of their meetings concerning Manafort, and senior department officials were also unaware of them. Swartz stated “that he specifically did not advise political appointees leading the Criminal Division of the meetings,” because he sought to keep “the MLARS investigation from being ‘politicized.”” While Weissmann claimed that “he thought not telling Department leadership was an ‘incorrect judgment call,’” he did not remember telling Swartz or Ahmad that, and instead kept their conversations concerning Manafort secret.
The IG report noted that “after [Obama Deputy Attorney General Sally] Yates learned during her OIG interview of the meetings involving Ohr, Swartz, Ahmad, and Weissmann,” she stated “that a decision not to advise political appointees ‘trouble[d]’ her because the Department does not ‘operate that way.’” There is not “a career Department of Justice and a political appointees’ Department of Justice. It’s all one DOJ,” Yates told the IG.
The IG agreed with these concerns, stating “Department leaders cannot fulfill their management responsibilities, and be held accountable for the Department’s actions, if subordinates intentionally withhold information from them in such circumstances,” such as Weissmann had.
What Else Did the Special Counsel Hide?
These details from the IG report raise further concerns about Weissmann’s involvement in the special counsel probe, which prompts two other questions: Besides Weissmann, how many other DOJ employees or FBI agents responsible for the inaccuracies and omissions identified in the IG report moved over to the special counsel team? Did those individuals cause the special counsel’s report to include significant inaccuracies and omissions?
Besides Weissmann, how many other DOJ employees or FBI agents responsible for the inaccuracies and omissions identified in the IG report moved over to the special counsel team?
While it may be some time before we know whether the special counsel report included significant inaccuracies, given the details contained in the IG’s report, it is now clear that the Mueller report omitted significant evidence relevant to whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. In fact, while the special counsel report claimed “this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the Office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible,” the IG report provided more perspective on the question of Russia collusion than the entire $30-million special counsel probe.
In fact, Mueller’s failure to address the veracity, or rather the fallacy, of Steele’s dossier cements the reality that the special counsel sought not to discern the truth, but to bury Trump. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board recognized
, “the Steele dossier was central to obtaining the Page warrant, and the leaks about the dossier fanned two years of media theories about Russian collusion that was one reason Mr. Mueller was appointed as special counsel. Mr. Mueller owed the public an explanation of how much of the dossier could be confirmed or repudiated.”
Yet, as “the Horowitz report makes clear, the FBI knew that most of the Steele dossier’s claims were unreliable,” and “Team Mueller made a deliberate choice to tiptoe around it,” even telling Congress in his opening statement, that “he would not address ‘matters related to the so-called Steele dossier,’ which he said were out of his purview.”
“This makes no sense,” the editorial board reasoned. But it does. It makes eminent sense once you realize the special counsel office served to continue a witch hunt, and once those efforts proved unsuccessful, Mueller’s team reverted instead to obscuring that fact.
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.
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