House Republicans have stepped up their demands for a new special counsel to be appointed to investigate alleged abuses of FISA powers and other misconduct at the FBI and the Department of Justice surrounding the 2016 election.
In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Tuesday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., argued for the need to appoint someone to look into “certain decisions made and not made by the Department of Justice and FBI in 2016 and 2017.”
“There is evidence of bias, trending toward animus, among those charged with investigating serious cases,” they claimed.
Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, echoed that request Wednesday, saying a special counsel should look into “all the machinations and hanky-panky that went on at the Department of Justice and FBI during the Obama years and even the first year of the Trump administration.”
Goodlatte and other Republicans have been pushing for a second special counsel for months, claiming that the FBI’s investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign was mishandled. Then-FBI Director James Comey recommended that no charges be filed over Clinton’s handling of classified information as secretary of state in July 2016, a decision that still angers some in the GOP.
The FBI also opened a counterintelligence probe in the summer of 2016 aimed at determining whether President Donald Trump’s campaign had any ties to a Russian effort to influence the outcome of the race.
After he was appointed as attorney general and his own contacts with the Russian ambassador came under scrutiny, Sessions recused himself from investigations related to the campaign. Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to look at Russian interference in the 2016 election after Trump fired Comey last year.
Calls for a separate special counsel to investigate the FBI’s investigations of Clinton and the Trump campaign have intensified as details about the political views of some officials and the evidence used to justify surveillance of one former Trump adviser have been revealed.
Last month, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., released a memo alleging that the FBI improperly used unverified opposition research funded by the Clinton campaign in applications for FISA orders on Carter Page, a consultant with ties to Russia who had served as a foreign policy adviser to Trump.
According to Nunes, the FBI did not sufficiently inform FISA court judges of the political motivations behind information provided by former British spy Christopher Steele when they cited it in an application to surveil Page in October 2016 and three requests to renew that authority. Steele was hired by a research firm that was being paid by a law firm working for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Intelligence Committee Democrats later released their own memo defending the FBI’s handling of Page and arguing that a note about Steele’s employer in the applications made the partisan origins of his research clear enough. They also maintained the FBI had plenty of other evidence supporting the applications for Page in addition to Steele’s intelligence reports.
“When you look at that memo that was put forth and you look at the allegations in there, when the DOJ and the FBI went before that FISA judge, they left out information,” Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., said Wednesday of the Nunes memo. “They did not fully brief that federal judge, so that was not an objective opinion.”
LaHood, a former federal prosecutor, suggested all options need to be on the table to probe what he described as “troubling” behavior by the FBI.
“Looking at all options, I know the inspector general is looking into this, but there may be a time and place where we have to have somebody else look at it,” he said.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said several issues have emerged that may merit appointing another special counsel, and possibly even more than one.
“I’m very worried about what I’ve heard about these FISA abuses,” he said. “You just can’t sweep those under the rug. I would hope that there’s already an effort by the DOJ to look at that and it may be that that requires a special counsel.”
Byrne stressed that he still has faith in the rank-and-file agents at the FBI, but he has growing concerns about the judgment of those in charge.
“There’s been a breakdown obviously in the way the FBI has handled a number of things and I’m beginning to worry about the leadership,” he said.
Sessions has already directed the DOJ Inspector General’s Office to look into possible abuses of the FISA process, but Trump and some of his allies claim that is not enough.
“While we have confidence in the Inspector General for the Department of Justice, the DOJ IG does not have the authority to investigate other governmental entities or former employees of the Department, the Bureau, or other agencies,” Goodlatte and Gowdy wrote in their letter.
Babin welcomed the IG’s involvement, but he still hopes a special prosecutor will be brought in.
“It’s hard to say, can the FBI investigate themselves?” he said. “I’m not sure I really believe that with all the stuff that’s come out.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., rejected the premise that an investigation of the FBI is needed at all.
“Not only is it not necessary, I believe its based on completely false information,” he said.
Connolly believes the claims in the GOP memo have been conclusively debunked, and the calls to bring in a second special counsel are purely political.
“If you’re looking for fake news,” he said, “what’s propelling this is a memo Republicans sent out from the House Intelligence Committee that has been debunked by both the media and the Democratic memo that in chapter and verse makes it clear that the assertion that the FBI misused FISA is false, that the assertion that the FBI withheld information from FISA courts in getting surveillance warrants is also false.”
President Trump has declared the purported FISA abuses to be a scandal “bigger than Watergate,” but Connolly sees his rhetoric as just another effort to undermine the legitimate probe of his campaign.
“The president sadly throughout this entirety of Mr. Mueller’s investigation has done everything he can to undermine the investigation, to discredit the FBI and law enforcement generally, and his own Department of Justice, including the attorney general he appointed,” he said.
Byrne acknowledged that Watergate is “a pretty high bar” in terms of corruption, but he does see cause for serious concern.
“I’m worried that the FBI was used by people at the top for partisan political ends. The FBI should never be used for that for either party,” he said. “That’s not what the FBI is.”
Babin had harsher words, calling the alleged actions of FBI officials “un-American, 100 percent.”
“It’s one of the most appalling things I’ve seen in my entire life that a political party, a small group of political folks would use and weaponize their positions in federal agencies, law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies and so forth to go after private citizens,” he said.
Matters that Goodlatte and Gowdy believe this new special counsel should investigate include “evidence of bias by any employee or agent of the DOJ, FBI, or other agencies involved in the investigation; the decisions to charge or not charge and whether those decisions were made consistent with the applicable facts, the applicable law, and traditional investigative and prosecutorial policies and procedures; and whether the FISA process employed in the fall of 2016 was appropriate and devoid of extraneous influence.”
The Justice Department has not yet responded to their request.