The Department of Justice’s inspector-general criticised the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign in testimony on Wednesday, as Republicans and Democrats clashed over the Russian election meddling probe.
Michael Horowitz, the inspector-general, appeared before the Senate judiciary committee after releasing a report earlier this week that found significant problems with the FBI investigation, named Crossfire Hurricane, but no evidence of political bias.
“I think the activities we found here don’t vindicate anybody who touched this,” he told the committee on Wednesday.
Mr Horowitz’s 400-page report has sparked recriminations in Washington, including an attack by Donald Trump on his handpicked director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, for being insufficiently critical of the Russia probe.
Meanwhile, the US attorney-general, William Barr, called the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election “completely baseless”. The probe, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, concluded this year with no finding of a criminal conspiracy between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russia.
In a lengthy opening statement on Wednesday, Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate judiciary committee, compared the problems found by Mr Horowitz to J Edgar Hoover, the long-serving FBI director known for compiling dossiers of damaging information on politicians.
“What happened here is not a few irregularities. What happened here is the system failed,” he said.
Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed to Mr Horowitz’s finding that there was no evidence of improper motive in the opening of the historic probe, nor in any of the investigative steps.
“Simply put, the FBI’s investigation was motivated by facts, not bias,” she said. Ms Feinstein also took aim at Mr Barr for his comments this week: “It’s really extraordinary that the attorney-general continues to make unsupported attacks on the agency he is responsible for leading.”
Though Mr Horowitz’s report has undercut the president’s claims he was the target of a “witch hunt”, the inspector-general has voiced his alarm at the absence of stronger guardrails around FBI investigations that implicate political campaigns.
He told the committee that current procedures, which allowed the FBI to open the probe without notifying senior justice department officials or lawyers, were “not sufficient to ensure appropriate oversight and accountability when such operations potentially implicate sensitive, constitutionally protected activity”.
The inspector-general also found the justice department had filed misleading warrant applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to carry out surveillance on Carter Page, an American businessman who had been a Trump campaign aide.
Several of the applications omitted exculpatory information, including the fact Mr Page was an informant for another US government agency, Mr Horowitz found. In 2017, an FBI lawyer altered an email from that agency to falsely state that Mr Page was not an informant, according to the inspector-general’s report.
“I don’t think the Department of Justice fairly treated these FISAs and he was on the receiving end,” Mr Horowitz said of Mr Page, who disclosed this week that he was a CIA asset, has never been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing.