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DOJ Watchdog: No Evidence Of Bias In Russia Probe

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The FBI had every right to open its investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. That's the main conclusion from a report by the Justice Department's internal watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz. And this conclusion directly contradicts President Trump's false claim that the investigation was politically motivated. But Horowitz also found serious shortcomings in how the bureau handled its surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser. President Trump lashed out at FBI Director Christopher Wray this morning. He said Wray will, quote, "never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken." But it was James Comey who led the FBI in the early stages of the investigation into the Trump campaign. Yesterday, NPR's Ari Shapiro asked Comey how those mistakes happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAMES COMEY: I'm not sure. I've read the report. I think the inspector general found something like 17 separate mistakes. And that is really unfortunate and really important that he found them so they can be fixed. And that's a worthwhile part of any inspector general report. And so I don't want to step away from that. But I want to underscore - nothing was done with political bias or with improper motivation.

ARI SHAPIRO: So many errors entered into their surveillance petitions around Carter Page. If the FBI had this many mistakes even on a high-profile, politically sensitive case, do you think there's a broader problem with FBI agents taking a cavalier attitude to eavesdropping on Americans?

COMEY: I don't. I think there is a problem with human beings working hard and making assumptions and not realizing that other people are making different assumptions. They make mistakes, but they are good people, well-overseen and checked.

MARTIN: All right. For more on the implications of the Horowitz report, we're joined by NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks for coming in, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: There was a lot of buildup to this report - a lot of people looking for their own vindication from this. Explain more about what the inspector general said here.

LUCAS: So this is a 400-plus-page report. So there's a lot in it - some good for the FBI, some bad. But two of the big takeaways are that the FBI had sufficient evidence to open its investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. And the inspector general found no evidence of political bias in the decision to launch that investigation. And those two findings are a big deal. They contradict, as you said, the allegation from some conservatives that the investigation was driven by political hostility against Trump.

But there were also some very serious problems with the FBI's investigation, as we heard in that clip from Ari and Comey at the top. That relates to the FBI's surveillance of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The inspector general documents 17 significant inaccuracies or omissions in the FBI's applications to get court approval for surveillance on Page. Leaving that information out, according to the inspector general, made the case for surveillance look stronger than it actually was.

MARTIN: So here we are in the middle of an impeachment inquiry. The House is expected to lay out their articles of impeachment today. It's a highly polarized time. I mean, that's like the understatement of the year. So how did Democrats and Republicans respond to this report?

LUCAS: So on the political front, the sides very much just retreated to their respective corners. The president described the findings as being far worse than he thought possible. He said the investigation amounted to essentially a coup. Unsurprisingly, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, had a very different interpretation of this report. He said that it debunks deep state conspiracy theories.

Internally - within the Justice Department, the response to the report has varied. FBI Director Chris Wray said the bureau accepts the inspector general's findings. He says he's ordered steps to be taken to address the report's recommendations. That includes changes to the FBI's surveillance practices.

Attorney General William Barr, on the other hand, released a pretty scathing statement that in many ways pushes back against some of the report's central conclusions. He called - Barr called the FBI's investigation intrusive, and he said that it was based on, quote, "the thinnest of suspicions." And in his view, he said those suspicions were insufficient to justify the steps that were taken.

MARTIN: So now - I mean, Attorney General Barr, not only has he released this statement under - calling into question the IG's conclusions, he's actually launched his own investigation. He asked that U.S. Attorney John Durham launch an investigation into this very thing. How is this different than what the Horowitz report was looking at?

LUCAS: So Durham is investigating similar issues to Horowitz but is understood to be looking at U.S. spy agencies and foreign intelligence services, as well. He's been traveling internationally to meet with foreign intelligence officials. He and the attorney general have enlisted the president's help to try to open doors for Durham overseas.

Now, Durham released his own statement yesterday, and that's a rarity because he's known for being very tight-lipped. And what Durham said was that, based on the evidence that he's collected so far in his investigation, he disagrees with some of the inspector general's conclusions, particularly about how the FBI opened this investigation.

MARTIN: Even though he's not even done with his own investigation.

LUCAS: It's still ongoing.

MARTIN: So it was pretty exceptional to have released that. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, thank you. We appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.