For two years, the president of the United States and his followers have loudly declared that the FBI acted unlawfully in conducting a counterintelligence investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
They repeatedly told the American people that the FBI had done all sorts of bad things, such as tapping Donald Trump’s wires during the campaign, opening an investigation without adequate cause, with the intent to damage Trump, and inserting secret informants into the Trump campaign.
The president said the FBI’s actions were “treason.” The current attorney general even slimed his own organization by supporting Trump’s claims, asserting there had been “spying” on the campaign. Crimes had been committed, the Trump crowd said, and a whole bunch of former FBI leaders, including me, were likely going to jail.
On Monday, we learned from a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, that the allegation of a criminal conspiracy was nonsense. There was no illegal wiretapping, there were no informants inserted into the campaign, there was no “spying” on the Trump campaign.
Although it took two years, the truth is finally out.
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At the heart of the Russian attack on the election was the release of damaging emails stolen from organizations and individuals associated with the Democratic Party. The releases started in June 2016. In late July, the FBI learned that a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser named George Papadopoulos had been involved months earlier in conversations about a Russian government offer of “dirt” in the form of emails damaging to Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
Based on that information, the FBI opened an investigation to try to understand whether Americans, including any associated with the Trump campaign, were involved with the Russian influence effort. It would have been a dereliction of duty for the FBI not to investigate that.
The investigation included electronic surveillance of one person, Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser with a long relationship to Russia and a history of contacts with Russian intelligence. The surveillance began with a court order shortly before the election. The order was renewed three times by federal judges. And the FBI kept it secret. Nothing was leaked to damage the Trump campaign.
The Russia investigation was complicated — not surprisingly, the inspector general found mistakes, 17 of them, things the FBI should have done differently, or better. That’s always unfortunate, but human beings make mistakes. Inspector-general reports are valuable because they offer the chance to learn. Horowitz also concluded that a low-level FBI lawyer doctored an email as part of the administrative process leading to the renewal of the application for electronic surveillance of the former campaign adviser. Although it is not clear what difference that made, it is still potentially serious wrongdoing and does not reflect the FBI culture of compliance and candor.
But most important, Horowitz’s report found that the investigation was opened and conducted under the rules, finding no “evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced [the] decision” to start it or how to run it. Those of us who knew that truth had to remain silent while a torrent of smears and falsehoods flowed from the White House, from some congressional committee chairmen, the attorney general and Fox News personalities. The FBI’s work was perceived as a threat to the president, and many Republicans apparently believe that all threats to Trump must be destroyed, no matter the cost to the nation.
The painful part is that millions of good people believed what they heard. My 89-year-old mother-in-law, watching Fox News in her Iowa assisted-living facility, became convinced that I was going to jail. I repeatedly assured her that there was a zero percent chance of that. “It’s all made up,” I would tell her. But I couldn’t say that publicly because the investigation wasn’t done yet. Like the others accused of treason by the president, I respected the process and cooperated with the inspector general.
Well, the wait is over, and those who smeared the FBI are due for an accounting. In particular, Attorney General William Barr owes the institution he leads, and the American people, an acknowledgment of the truth.
Unfortunately, it appears that Barr will continue his practice of deriding the Justice Department when the facts don’t agree with Trump’s fiction. Pointing to his personally commissioned “review” of the FBI’s case-opening, Barr has declared it is too soon to conclude that the FBI was right to start an investigation. If his goal is simply to support the president’s conspiracy theories, it will always be too soon to acknowledge the facts.
As the leader of an institution that is supposed to be devoted to truth, Barr needs to stop acting like a Trump spokesperson. In the words of the nation’s Founders, the Justice Department’s inspector general has “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” The FBI fulfilled its mission — protecting the American people and upholding the U.S. Constitution. Now those who attacked the FBI for two years should admit they were wrong.
James Comey is a former director of the FBI and a former deputy attorney general.