Why you can’t trust the FBI

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens now says he was wrong to defend James Comey when then-President Donald Trump fired Comey as director of the FBI amid the federal investigation into alleged Russian influence on Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign.

In 2017, when Trump fired Comey, Stephens saw it as proof that the president was trying to obstruct the investigation against him. “When the president calls news ‘fake’ or a story ‘phony,'” Stephen wrote, “you know the truth quotient is likely to be high. And, again, you know he knows you know it.”

But revelations about the FBI’s poor handling of the investigation, as well as a new federal arrest related to the sourcing of the unsubstantiated Steele Dossier, have Stephens rethinking what he thought he knew.

And Stephens is not the only one apologizing for getting the story wrong. Some media outlets, including The Washington Post, have had to issue corrections and removed inaccurate reporting about the infamous Steele Dossier, which attempted to show corrupt ties between Trump and the Russian government that both left him open to potential blackmail and threatened national security.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice charged Igor Danchenko with lying to the FBI. He allegedly covered up the fact that he was the source of some of the information in the Steele Dossier and attempted to conceal the fact that some of the information actually came from Democratic Party sources, rather than Russian ones. The Washington Post, by contrast, reported in 2017 and 2019 that a Belaurisan American businessman named Sergei Millianwas a source for the Steele Dossier and was behind the claim that the Russians had video of Trump getting golden showers from prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room. The Post has now updated that reporting online, including editor’s notes explaining the changes and why they made them.

Stephens notes that the media’s handling of the Steele Dossier is itself a scandal, but he’s more focused on how FBI agents misled the overseeing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court when they filed warrant applications to wiretap Carter Page and downplayed and omitted information that might have caused the FISA judges to question or even reject the warrants. The feds were investigating whether Page might have been compromised as a foreign policy aide to Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia through gas and oil consulting work. Page’s name appeared repeatedly in the Steele Dossier.

Thanks to an internal audit of the FBI’s operations, we’ve since learned that the agency regularly screws up warrant applications to secretly wiretap or surveil American targets. This is a big deal because the secrecy of the FISA Court means there’s no outside review or oversight. The FISA Court’s job is to make sure that the FBI is not violating the rights of Americans when agents snoop on them; when the FBI is not properly thorough in vetting the information it’s using for surveillance, the FISA Court might not even know it.

Stephens correctly identifies these and other endemic problems within the FBI:

Of such dross was spun years of high-level federal investigations, ponderous congressional hearings, pompous Adam Schiff soliloquies, and nonstop public furor. But none of that would likely have happened if the F.B.I. had treated the dossier as the garbage that it was, while stressing the ways in which Russia had sought to influence the election on Trump’s behalf, or the ways in which the Trump campaign (particularly through its onetime manager, Paul Manafort) was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Instead, Comey used it as a political weapon by privately briefing President-elect Trump about it, despite ample warnings about the dossier’s credibility. In doing so, Comey made the existence of the “salacious and unverified” dossier news in its own right.

One irony here is that some media outlets were initially correct to be skeptical of the Steele Dossier. For example, CNN only reported on its existence at first, leaving Buzzfeed to publish the full contents in 2017. Many media ethicists at the time were openly skeptical of the dossier’s contents and critical of BuzzFeed for publishing it. Reason Editor at Large Nick Gillespie bluntly called the dossier “horseshit,” adding, “If you’ve ever wondered why the news media is treated with derision and distrust, today is your lucky day.”

Unfortunately, many people’s political opinions about Trump shaped their opinions about the FBI and the Steele Dossier itself. As Stephens notes, it was absolutely correct for the FBI to investigate the allegations against Trump’s campaign and to look for the possibility of Russian meddling in the election. But the credibility of the investigation changed entirely when the FBI concealed information that suggested there might not have been a fire behind the smoke.

This is a consistent problem for the FBI and a reminder, as Stephens observes, that the agency has a history of not being trustworthy. It’s also a reminder that the bizarre faith that Trump’s critics placed in Comey was entirely misguided.

You won’t find many fans of Trump, nor fans of Comey and the FBI, here at Reason. As Reason has reported, the problems within the FBI long predate Trump. And even the new charges against Danchenko look shaky under scrutiny. After all, he has been charged only with five instances of lying to the FBI. He has not been accused of any other misdeed. The FBI often deploys such charges when it can’t prove an underlying crime, an approach that raises big civil rights problems. Funny enough, that is exactly what happened to Michael Flynn, who was charged not with corruption or treason, but with lying to the FBI about his discussions with a Russian diplomat.

It wasn’t Danchenko who used the unverified Steele Dossier as evidence to support the secret wiretap of Carter Page. That was the FBI, whose agents knew the dossier was suspect and still used it anyway.

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