If you were expecting a bombshell inspector general report to lock away former FBI Director James Comey and his merry band of texters, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The report brings no charges, though it recognizes some unprofessional, inappropriate, and insubordinate behavior with various violations of the FBI offense code of conduct.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch was let off the hook for her meeting with President Bill Clinton on the tarmac, with the IG saying the worst part of it was appearance.
[W]e found no evidence that Lynch and former President Clinton discussed the Midyear investigation or engaged in other inappropriate discussion during their tarmac meeting, we also found that Lynch’s failure to recognize the appearance problem created by former President Clinton’s visit and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment. We further concluded that her efforts to respond to the meeting by explaining what her role would be in the investigation going forward created public confusion and did not adequately address the situation.
The IG found that the FBI has a “cultural attitude” when it comes to leaking information, but this didn’t extend to a policy issue.
We identified numerous FBI employees, at all levels of the organization and with no official reason to be in contact with the media, who were nevertheless in frequent contact with reporters.
We have profound concerns about the volume and extent of unauthorized media contacts by FBI personnel that we have uncovered during our review. In addition, we identified instances where FBI employees improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.
We do not believe the problem is with the FBI’s policy, which we found to be clear and unambiguous. Rather, we concluded that these leaks highlight the need to change what appears to be a cultural attitude among many in the organization.
As for the Peter Strzok and Lisa Page texts, the IG took issue with their use of company devices, but he didn’t find that they allowed their biases to affect the Clinton email investigation (aka the Mid-Year Exam). The only exception that alerted the IG to this possibility was the decision to put the lead from emails from Anthony Weiner’s laptop on the back-burner before the election. The IG, however, reported that many people contributed to that decision, not only Strzok.
Still, the IG was “deeply troubled by the text messages” between the lovebirds.
In assessing the decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop, we were particularly concerned about text messages sent by Strzok and Page that potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions they made were impacted by bias or improper considerations.
Most of the text messages raising such questions pertained to the Russia investigation, and the implication in some of these text messages, particularly Strzok’s August 8 text message (“we’ll stop” candidate Trump from being elected), was that Strzok might be willing to take official action to impact a presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. Under these circumstances, we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias.
We searched for evidence that the Weiner laptop was deliberately placed on the back-burner by others in the FBI to protect Clinton, but found no evidence in emails, text messages, instant messages, or documents that suggested an improper purpose. We also took note of the fact that numerous other FBI executives—including the approximately 39 who participated in the September 28 SVTC—were briefed on the potential existence of Midyear-related emails on the Weiner laptop.
We also noted that the Russia investigation was under the supervision of Priestap—for whom we found no evidence of bias and who himself was aware of the Weiner laptop issue by September 29. However, we also did not identify a consistent or persuasive explanation for the FBI’s failure to act for almost a month after learning of potential Midyear-related emails on the Weiner laptop. The FBI’s inaction had potentially far-reaching consequences. Comey told the OIG that, had he known about the laptop in the beginning of October and thought the email review could have been completed before the election, it may have affected his decision to notify Congress. Comey told the OIG, “I don’t know [if] it would have put us in a different place, but I would have wanted to have the opportunity.”
We were deeply troubled by text messages exchanged between Strzok and Page that potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations. Most of the text messages raising such questions pertained to the Russia investigation, which was not a part of this review. Nonetheless, when one senior FBI official, Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, Page, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it” in response to her question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice.
The following is a summary of the IG’s other eight conclusions.
While the OIG Report contains several findings of poor judgment, violations of or disregard for policy, and investigatory actions that might have benefitted from a better decisionmaking process, it contains no finding that any error in judgment, violation of policy, or investigatory action was motivated by political bias or other improper considerations.
This is critical to the operation of the FBI and the ability of the American people to count on the FBI to act impartially and objectively. For the same reasons, it is equally important to note again that the OIG Report is narrowly focused on the handful of individuals who were the most deeply involved in running the MYE investigation, and does not generally find fault with the FBI’s policies, practices, or procedures as they pertain to investigations, ethical conduct, or media contacts.
1. Conduct creating a perception that political bias could have influenced certain actions or decisions
The OIG identified several separate acts that created an appearance that political bias could have influenced certain actions or decisions. The FBI accepts that text messages exchanged over FBI-issued devices by certain FBI employees, primarily Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, demonstrated extremely poor judgment and a lack of professionalism. The FBI also accepts that the content of these messages, critical of political candidates, brought discredit upon those exchanging them and harmed the FBI’s reputation. Similarly, the FBI accepts that the decision to allow Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson to be present during the interview of former Secretary Clinton was inconsistent with typical investigative strategy and created an appearance that political bias could have influenced this decision, especially when viewed in the light of messages exchanged between Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page.
Despite the appearance of bias created by these actions, the OIG found no evidence that bias affected any investigatory decision or action. As determined by the OIG, there was no evidence of bias or other improper considerations in former Director Comey’s instruction to complete the MYE [Mid-Year Exam] investigation “promptly.” Likewise, the OIG considered multiple decisions and actions taken by the MYE team related to obtaining evidence, interview timing and procedures, and the use of consent or immunity agreements. No evidence of bias or other improper considerations was found by the OIG in the MYE team’s: use of consent, rather than subpoenas, search warrants, or other legal process to obtain evidence; decisions regarding how to limit consent agreements; decision not to seek personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides; decisions to enter into immunity agreements; decisions regarding the timing and scoping of former Secretary Clinton’s interview, or to proceed with the interview with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson present; and, the decision to obtain testimony and other evidence from Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson by consent agreement and with act-of-production immunity.
Although no bias or other improper consideration was found in the FBI’s decisions or actions, the appearance of bias is disconcerting and potentially damaging to the FBI’s ability to perform its mission.
2. Violation of or disregard for DOJ or FBI policies by former Director James Comey’s July 5, 2016, announcement and October 28, 2016, letter
The OIG found that former Director Comey violated DOJ’s media policy, and potentially regulations related to the public release of information, when he made his July 5, 2016, announcement. He was also found to have committed a serious error in judgment by sending his October 28, 2016, letter, in disregard of FBI and DOJ policy, without DOJ approval, and in usurpation of the Attorney General’s authority. The FBI does not contest these findings.
The FBI will implement the OIG’s recommendation that the FBI adopt a policy on the appropriateness of employees addressing uncharged conduct in public statements. The Director is also tasking the FBI’s OGC to develop, within 30 days, guidance requiring prior consultation with DOJ preceding any public reference to FBI charging recommendations in criminal investigations.
3. Issues involving media contacts, dissemination of information, and leaks
The OIG’s conclusion that there is a need to change the “cultural attitude” regarding media contacts and leaks at the FBI is troubling. The FBI is acutely aware of the damage unauthorized communications or leaks can cause to investigations, prosecutions, the personal lives of those involved in the case or who may be subjects or targets, and the reputation of the Bureau. Leaks or unauthorized communications are not taken lightly, are never condoned, and may result in discipline, up to and including termination, and potentially prosecution. Given the conclusions reached in the OIG report, the Director instructed the Assistant Director of OPR to review whether current disciplinary penalties are adequate to deter unauthorized media contact or leaks and to report back on their adequacy, or the need for additional penalties, within 30 days.
4. Former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s recusal obligations
The OIG found that the former Deputy Director and the Bureau acted appropriately with regard to his involvement in and recusal from the Clinton-related investigations. The OIG concurred with the FBI’s determination that former Deputy Director McCabe was not required to recuse from those investigations and found that he notified the appropriate persons in the FBI to seek guidance on ethics issues. The OIG Report also makes clear that former Deputy Director McCabe generally abided by his voluntary recusal from Clinton-related matters after November 1, 2016, in that there is no evidence that he continued to supervise investigative decisions in those matters after his recusal. The FBI agrees with the OIG that in a few instances, the former Deputy Director did not fully comply with his voluntary recusal.
5. The use of personal email accounts by former Director Comey and Peter Strzok
The OIG found that former Director Comey used personal email accounts for unclassified FBI business, absent exigent circumstances, in contravention of FBI and DOJ policy. The OIG also found that Peter Strzok and Lisa Page used personal email accounts for unclassified FBI business. Although former Director Comey and Ms. Page are no longer employed by the FBI, the OIG referred Mr. Strzok for an investigation into whether his use of personal email accounts violated FBI or DOJ policy. The FBI will handle this referral pursuant to the FBI’s disciplinary investigation and adjudication processes. The FBI notes that there is no finding or indication in the OIG Report that any classified material ever transited former Director Comey’s, Ms. Page’s, or Mr. Strzok’s personal devices or accounts.
6. Missteps in certain investigatory processes
Two complex, exceptionally important investigations were being conducted concurrently by the FBI in 2016, MYE and the Russia influence investigation. The FBI sought to staff both investigations with the people it thought at the time were the best qualified (as it always does). Both were close-hold, sensitive, and multifaceted. At the highest levels of leadership then in the FBI, judgment calls and decisions were made regarding how each investigation should proceed and how investigatory actions should be prioritized.
The OIG questioned some of the judgment calls and decisions, including reassigning senior members from the MYE team to the Russia influence investigation, the delay in seeking a search warrant for Anthony Weiner’s laptop, and the decision by agents and prosecutors not to subpoena or seek search warrants for the personal devices of three senior aides to former Secretary Clinton. The FBI agrees that it could have moved more quickly to secure a search warrant that there was no evidence of bias or improper considerations in the decision not to seek the personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides, the lack of urgency in seeking a search warrant for the Weiner laptop, and the prioritization of the Russia influence investigation.
7. Insubordination by former Director Comey
The OIG found that former Director Comey was insubordinate when he intentionally concealed from DOJ his intentions regarding the July 5, 2016, announcement and instructed his subordinates to do the same. The FBI does not condone insubordination at any level and will institute training to ensure compliance with policy and the chain of command, as appropriate.
8. The potentially improper use of FBI systems and devices to exchange messages, the related referrals for investigation, and the recommendations to create additional warning banners and guidance.
The OIG found that several FBI employees had exchanged text messages, instant messages, or both that included political statements. The OIG also found that some messages appeared to mix political opinion with discussions about the MYE investigation. The OIG concluded there is no evidence to connect the political views expressed by these employees with the specific MYE investigative decisions. Regarding the messages, the FBI will handle the OIG’s referrals pursuant to its disciplinary investigation and adjudication processes and will impose disciplinary measures as warranted.