Read: Britain’s secret war with Russia
Republicans’ claim that the investigation began because the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain permission to surveil the former Trump campaign aide Carter Page was false. The IG also “did not find any records” that Joseph Mifsud, the professor who told Papadopoulos the Russians had obtained “dirt” on Clinton, was an FBI informant sent to entrap him. The former FBI agent Peter Strzok and the former FBI attorney Lisa Page, who shared anti-Trump sentiments over text and have become key villains in the Trumpist narrative of a “coup,” never had the power to do what has been attributed to them. The IG report notes that Page “did not play a role in the decision to open” the Russia investigation, and that Strzok was “was not the sole, or even the highest-level, decision maker as to any of those matters.”
The IG report also determined that “the FBI had an authorized purpose when it opened [the Russia investigation] to obtain information about, or protect against, a national security threat or federal crime, even though the investigation also had the potential to impact constitutionally protected activity.” Moreover, the IG found “no evidence” that “political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” to investigate Trump advisers with ties to Russia.
There is, in short, no “deep state” anti-Trump conspiracy, no network of perfidious liberals in the FBI seeking to take down Trump. There is, however, voluminous evidence of reprehensible behavior by the president, first taking advantage of a foreign attack on the 2016 election for personal and political profit, seeking to obstruct the investigation into that interference, and then falsely concocting an elaborate conspiracy theory to avoid accountability for his actions.
Nevertheless, there are important systemic problems with the FBI and the way that the U.S. government approves invasive surveillance techniques on American citizens. The report notes that while the FBI had a sufficient factual predicate for opening the investigation, that is because the FBI and the Department of Justice must meet a “low threshold” for justifying such an investigation. In addition, while the IG report found no evidence that “political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page,” the IG did determine that the Page FISA application was “inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation,” which misled the court as to the credibility of the FBI’s evidence when seeking authority to surveil Page.
Liberals may be tempted to dismiss such findings as unimportant. But federal investigations are incredibly invasive, and having a stricter standard for the circumstances under which an investigation can be opened would help ensure that this authority is not abused; the Clinton Foundation investigation began—and this is no joke—with an anti-Hillary book paid for by the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. If the FBI is making errors in seeking permission to surveil current or former advisers to a presidential campaign, the most politically sensitive kind of investigation, it suggests that there are many more flawed applications to be found in operations where the investigations are not nearly so delicate. The process for seeking permission to spy on American citizens suspected of being foreign agents should be more adversarial than it is, if only to keep the government honest.