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Secret Court Orders FBI to Fix Problems Uncovered in Trump Probe

December 18, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

A secret court has ordered the FBI to explain what it’s doing to ensure applications for wiretaps are legally sound and accurate, issuing a rare public rebuke after multiple failures were revealed on the bureau’s pursuit of a former Trump campaign aide.

The FBI has until Jan. 10 to comply with the order issued Tuesday by the presiding judge of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The court took action in response to a scathing report presented last week by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who found at least 17 failures in FISA applications to wiretap Carter Page, a former aide in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“The frequency with which representations made by FBI personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable,” U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer wrote in the order.

“Wow!” Trump wrote in a Twitter post on Tuesday evening, “Means my case was a SCAM!”

Current and former FBI officials have told judges, lawmakers and the public for years that applications for FISA warrants are carefully drafted to meet legal and ethical obligations, and that layers of oversight ensure they’re accurate. Very few applications have been rejected by the FISA court: Only 72 were denied in full or in part out of about 1,318 that were submitted to the court in 2018, according to an annual report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

“We can’t trust the secret intelligence court alone to police this process,” Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement contending the FISA court has failed to respond in the past to surveillance abuses.

Horowitz found there was no political bias in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s decision to open an investigation into Trump campaign members and possible links to Russian interference in the 2016 election, rebutting a central assertion of anti-Trump bias by Trump and Republican lawmakers.

But the inspector general said he uncovered 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” by FBI officials in obtaining four warrants to conduct surveillance of Page from Oct. 2016 to Sept. 2017.

“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,” Horowitz concluded in the report he released on Dec. 9.

Given the failures in the Page warrants, Horowitz said his office is now undertaking a broad review of other FISA applications. FBI Director Christopher Wray has vowed to address shortcomings in the agency’s performance.

The first warrant to eavesdrop on Page was obtained after he left the Trump campaign. But Trump, Attorney General William Barr and Republican lawmakers have seized on the inspector general’s finding to allege the FBI used the Page warrants to spy on the campaign.

Altered Email

In particular, Horowitz found that an FBI lawyer altered an email used in a package of material to seek court approval to renew the wiretap of Page.

Collyer said the lawyer’s conduct has given rise to “serious concerns about the accuracy and completeness” of information provided to the court in any matter in which the attorney was involved. The court issued an order on Dec. 5 directing the FBI to provide information addressing those concerns.

Collyer added that the court “expects the government to provide complete and accurate information in every filing.”

Otherwise, she wrote, the court can’t “properly ensure that the government conducts electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes only when there is a sufficient factual basis.”