Justice Dept. IG reassures witnesses they can rebut Russia report

A forthcoming Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe is already drawing criticism, weeks before its expected completion, amid concerns that witnesses wouldn’t be given sufficient time to review the document before its release.

As President Donald Trump and his supporters seek to build expectations around the report, which they hope will undermine the investigation that ultimately led to the Mueller report, the Justice Department’s inspector general moved to assure witnesses that they would be able to offer full rebuttals before anything is released.

A spokeswoman for Inspector General Michael Horowitz said that the office is making “every effort to ensure witnesses can provide their comments” and is “clarifying to them that they will be able to provide written comments, consistent with rules to protect classified information.”

Concerns over the comment procedure, seen typically as one of the final steps before the completion of a watchdog report like this, were amplified by a Washington Post story that cited people familiar with the situation who said that some witnesses had only been given an opportunity to offer verbal responses to the draft. That led to speculation that the office, which is designed to operate independently in the Justice Department, was risking accuracy in a rush to roll out the highly anticipated report.

CNN reported this week that some witnesses were told they would have several days to provide written comments.

Among the issues explored in the report is whether the FBI properly handled court-ordered surveillance of former Trump campaign associate Carter Page under the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Act, also known as FISA.

The President and his supporters, including South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, have led a steady drumbeat of anticipation over the Horowitz report, suggesting it will provide evidence of improper conduct by the FBI in the early stages of the Russia investigation that undermine the entire credibility of the probe.

What the report says is still unknown. But some witnesses who have been interviewed by the inspector general say that they expect that the report will likely reveal some missteps, though none that should be interpreted as undermining a legitimate investigation.

Some of Horowitz’s findings have also made their way into a separate investigation ordered by Attorney General William Barr that is examining some of the intelligence that were used in the origins of the Russia investigation.

Barr tapped veteran prosecutor John Durham, the US attorney in Connecticut, to study questions of whether there was any improper political surveillance ordered by intelligence leaders from the CIA, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That investigation was recently elevated to a criminal probe, CNN has reported.

The Horowitz probe dates to early 2018, and the report has been pronounced imminent for months. Its delay has rankled Republicans, who have appeared restless to learn its findings at a time when the first round of televised impeachment hearings was producing damaging claims and dominating headlines.

“If FISA Inspector General Horowitz report doesn’t come out next week when they said it would then I will be very disappointed & left to wonder WHAT THE GAME IS?? Is someone at FBI or DOJ tying IGs hands??” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a leading Republican and former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter Tuesday.

In congressional testimony earlier this year, Barr said that he expected the report to be finished by May or June. Over the summer, Horowitz told lawmakers it was “nearing completion,” and an official briefed on the matter predicted to CNN that it would be ready by the early fall.

The most concrete update to the timeline of the report’s rollout has come in recent weeks, as Horowitz told lawmakers that the draft was being reviewed for declassification by the Justice Department and FBI, and people familiar with the matter told CNN that witnesses who are mentioned in the document were being invited in to review certain sections.

Witnesses have set up times for such reviews over the next two weeks, the people familiar with the situation said, meaning the report could be released in the days around Thanksgiving.

The process had been complicated by the classified nature of the report, which meant witnesses would have to review it and isolate any notes they took in a special room meant to house secret material.

While the timing of the report’s completion is up to the inspector general’s office, which operates outside of the Justice Department leadership, Barr has been kept apprised of its progress, and spoke last week with Graham, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a close adviser to the President, said a person familiar with the call.

Investigators from the watchdog office reviewed more than 1 million records and conducted more than 100 interviews as part of the review. It is said to scrutinize the FBI’s use of surveillance techniques against a Trump campaign adviser, as well as the agency’s reliance on a dossier of unverified intelligence on the Trump campaign collected by former British spy Christopher Steele.

Allies of the White House hope that it will substantiate the chief grievance of the President, who has complained throughout his tenure that law enforcement officials acted with political bias as they targeted his campaign for investigation. Some Republicans have gone as far as to describe the FBI’s work as a plotted coup.

Graham has built expectations for the report in a number of recent interviews, saying on Fox last week that the report would be “damning” and promising to bring in Horowitz for testimony before his committee.

Barr, for his part, has been more measured as he’s offered glimpses into the report’s findings over the year, though he has drawn criticism for telling a panel of lawmakers in April that he thought the Trump campaign had been spied on.

He has said that explanations he’s received about the opening of the Russia probe “don’t hang together” and that the Justice Department should tighten protocol around counterintelligence investigations into political candidates.