The FBI owes Carter Page an apology.
That wasn’t the headline after the Justice Department released a blistering internal review of the FBI’s Russia investigation. The top news was that the FBI had solid grounds to investigate, and it wasn’t a partisan hoax, as President Donald Trump angrily insists.
But Page’s ordeal — as a former Trump campaign advisor who became the target of court-approved wiretapping — tells us something disturbing about the FBI.
In July 2016, when the FBI opened its investigation into contacts between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign, Page was one of the first Americans the agency looked at.
The voluble businessman had traveled to Moscow in search of oil and gas deals, wangled meetings with Russian government officials, and told them he was active in the Trump campaign.
That earned Page a starring role in the so-called dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who specialized in Russian cloak-and-dagger. Steele’s compendium of raw, unverified intelligence alleged Page was part of a “well-developed conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Based largely on Steele’s allegation, the FBI asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to intercept Page’s communications, including his texts, emails and calls.
But the FBI omitted two pieces of exculpatory evidence from its application to the FISA court.
It didn’t mention that some FBI and CIA officials had doubts about the reliability of Steele’s information. And it didn’t say that Page had reported his contacts with Russia to the CIA, which meant he at least kept U.S. officials informed.
The FISA court OKd the application and later renewed it three times — including in mid-2017, well after Trump had taken office — without realizing it was acting on incomplete information.
“That made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case,” the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz found. “Basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations.”
One more thing: The surveillance produced nothing of value.
Page wasn’t the linchpin of a well-developed espionage conspiracy; just an overeager businessman with more ambition than smarts. Another wiretap captured the assessment of a Russian intelligence officer: “I think he is an idiot.”
Even idiots deserve to be protected by the Bill of Rights.
The injury done to Page doesn’t mean the FBI investigation was groundless. The special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III documented a vast Russian intelligence operation aimed at Americans during the 2016 race, and said Trump’s aides “welcomed” Russian offers of help.
It certainly doesn’t support Trump’s wild charges that the inquiry was directed by President Obama, and that the FBI officials who ran it were guilty of “treason.”
To the contrary, the inspector general concluded that the FBI had legitimate reasons to investigate Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.
But he also said the FBI was guilty of “serious performance failures” in its probe.
How did the FBI screw up so badly? Simple.
Despite its outsize reputation, burnished with good public relations and Hollywood productions, most of the FBI is just an oversized police force — with some brilliant investigators, many who are less than brilliant, and an often-sclerotic bureaucracy.
In the 1990s, the FBI failed to connect the dots when Saudi Arabian student pilots trained in the United States for the terrorist plot that would become 9/11.
In 2007, an inspector general slammed the FBI for exceeding its authority in investigations aimed at potential terrorists, including physical searches, wiretaps and data collection that had not been properly approved.
And the FBI’s vaunted forensic laboratories have run into recurring problems of mismanagement and mishandled evidence.
This time, to his credit, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray — whom Trump appointed — accepted the inspector general’s findings and promised “meaningful remedial action,” including more than 40 specific steps.
Of course, every government official promises meaningful action when things go bad. Congress needs to keep close watch on whether Wray follows through.
Here’s a reform he should add: Whenever the FBI asks the FISA court for a warrant, an independent advocate should review the application. The advocates, five lawyers with security clearances, are allowed to participate in the court’s deliberations — but only if the government or judges ask.
Alas for Wray, he’s already been slammed by his bosses, Trump and Attorney General William Barr.
“I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me,” Trump complained Tuesday on Twitter. “With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI.”
Since the president has fired Wray’s predecessor, James B. Comey, his use of the word “current” looked ominous.
And Barr dismissed any notion that the Russia investigation was legitimate. He told NBC that it was an effort by the Obama administration “to spy on political opponents (and) affect the outcome of the election.”
So here’s a challenge for Trump critics who are also skeptical of the FBI: In this fight, whose side are you on?
I think it’s an easy choice. Trump should get out of Wray’s way and let him try to fix the FBI.
Otherwise we may discover how fragile our liberties are. Just ask Carter Page.
Doyle McManus wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.