Inspector General Horowitz's Report Likely to Damage Comey, Frustrate Trump, Pressure Barr's Handpicked Successor

On Monday, the partisans in the swamp of Washington (and beyond) will get something they have been pining for. At last, the much-hyped, long-delayed Department of Justice Inspector General's report on possible FISA abuse--the process by which the FBI got permission to surveil an American citizen, Carter Page, once affiliated with Donald Trump's presidential campaign--will finally be released.

To Republicans, the so-called Horowitz report (the IG is Michael Horowitz, a well-regarded Obama appointee) is the first step in the counteroffensive against what they believe was a sinister plot, hatched by Obama-era intelligence and FBI officials, to frame Trump as a Russian dupe who "colluded" with Vladimir Putin to steal the 2016 election.

They hope there will be sufficient damning detail in the report to lead to multiple criminal referrals. At the top of their wish list, fanned nightly on Fox News: the sight of former FBI director James Comey frog marched out of his lovely McLean, Va., home.

ormer Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey is surrounded by reporters after testifying to the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 07, 2018 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For Democrats, there is more fear than hope attached to the report's release and Horowitz's expected December 11 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The report could disrupt the impeachment narrative they are composing in the House of Representatives.

It may contain a few inconvenient facts about the origins of "Operation Crossfire Hurricane," as the FBI probe into Trump was named. Indeed, those who have seen parts of the report--anyone Horowitz interviewed gets to review for factual accuracy the parts of it dealing with them--have tried to get out in front of the story with strategic leaks.

The Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that a "low level" Justice Department attorney is said to have "altered" a document submitted to the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court. It's also been reported that, according to the report, the FBI did not alert the FISA judge that some of the information supplied by former MI6 official Christopher Steele (author of the notorious "dossier" on Trump's alleged Russia transgressions) didn't independently verify some of Steele's claims.

But overall, the leakers say, the report will find no "bias" against Trump, and further will claim that "the investigation was opened on a solid legal and factual footing," according to the Washington Post.

Horowitz's remit was to review the process by which the FBI decided and then proceeded to seek permission to surveil an American citizen affiliated with a political campaign. Barr, in an interview last spring, called that step "a big deal." To undertake surveillance of a U.S. citizen, to tap his phone and rifle through his past e-mails, is an extraordinary measure; as Francey Hakes, a former attorney in the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence, responsible for vetting FISA applications, says, "it is an onerous process, not nearly as easy as getting a search warrant from a judge."

Donald Trump impeachment Twitter Ukraine call transcript
US President Donald Trump speaks at the NATO summit in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019. Trump is facing impeachment over his alleged misconduct towards Ukraine. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

In pursuing this investigation, Justice Department guidelines say only DOJ employees must sit for interviews with Horowitz and his staff. Anyone else, including former DOJ officials or officials from other intelligence agencies, can be asked to cooperate. But they don't have to do so. In this case, Comey met with Horowitz, as did CIA Director GIna Haspel, and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Horowitz can make criminal referrals to the DOJ based on his investigation. And It is likely that the attorney who allegedly altered a document will be referred for possible prosecution. Might there be others? Two senior Justice Department officials declined to comment on the possibility.

The reverberations of the Horowitz report will be deeply felt at "main Justice," as DOJ headquarters is called, as well as at the FBI. The widespread expectation is that the report will be scathing, sources said. The use of the unverified Steele dossier as part of the FISA application process, says Hakes, "is terrifying." Comey has said publicly that standard practice was simply to vouch before the court as to a source's prior credibility. Since Christopher Steele had provided useful information in the past, the argument goes, the dossier was therefore A-OK, the FBI's defenders have said.

The problem with that assertion, according to five current and former DOJ officials, is that it's false. First, in this case, Steele was merely a messenger, delivering information provided by sources in Russia. They are the ones whose credibility needs to be assessed. Did the FBI do that? To what extent? And what did they find? Horowitz will tell us, and hints from current and former DOJ officials suggest the news will not be good for Comey & Co, who ran the Russia investigation. "It was a complete breakdown of the processes designed to protect American citizens," says Hakes.

How or why that happened will be central to Horowitz's findings. The GOP suspects malevolent intent. But if the report concludes as the Post reported, that there was a sufficient "legal basis" for the surveillance warrant to be sought, then the most interesting and important aspect will be this: will it say what the legal basis was, beyond the dossier? Because that remains a mystery--arguably the central mystery of the entire Russia-gate saga.

And there is another key question that presumably Horowitz will address: how did his investigation lead to that conclusion? Attorney General William Barr is said to be skeptical that Horowitz had enough information on which to assert that there was a legal predicate for the Russia investigation. He has tasked U.S. attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Russia probe beyond the FISA process, including the role the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies may have played in providing information that found its way to the FBI.

Durham's is now a criminal investigation, meaning he can convene grand juries and seek indictments (something an inspector general cannot). This is why several current and former CIA officials have already "lawyered up," as the phrase goes. Barr suspects the CIA and foreign intelligence services played a key role in developing information that led to the FISA requests. That's something that Durham is looking into.

In drawing his reported conclusion, is Horowitz replying on summaries of the intelligence the Bureau received from other sources? Was he shown the raw intelligence? Is Barr right to be skeptical of his reported conclusion? The release of the Horowitz report will answer at least some of those questions. And then it will be Durham's turn to probe.

bill barr, william barr
U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty