A few media outlets have picked up on a brief disclosure from Jeff Sessions, in an interview with Fox News’ Shannon Bream this week, that he has apparently already appointed someone other than the Justice Department Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, to conduct an investigation of FISA surveillance abuses in the Obama administration.
President Trump registered displeasure with Sessions a week ago when the attorney general said he was having IG Horowitz investigate the FISA matter.
Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2018
But the latest statement to Shannon Bream appears to indicate that the IG’s slow-moving apparatus isn’t the only one getting a crack at the FISA-abuse problem.
Characteristically, Sessions didn’t say much about it. Here’s a transcript from ZeroHedge, in which Sessions is addressing the request from Congress for a special counsel to look into FISA abuses:
“Well, I have great respect for Mr. Gowdy and Chairman Goodlatte, and we are going to consider seriously their recommendations,” Sessions told Bream in a Wednesday night interview. “I have appointed a person outside of Washington — many years at the Department of Justice — to look at all of the allegations that the House Judiciary Committee members sent to us and we are conducting that investigation.”
Sessions also noted that he is “well aware that we have a responsibility to ensure the integrity of the FISA process.”
“We are not afraid to look at that,” the AG explained. “The inspector general, something that our inspector general is not very strong, but he has almost 500 employees, most of which are lawyers and prosecutors, and they are looking at the FISA process…. …We must make sure it is done properly, and we are going to do that, and I will consider the request.”
Thomas Lifson (top link) expresses surprise about the new revelation from Sessions, suggesting that it differs from what was said last week. A “person outside of Washington” with many years in DOJ would not be the Inspector General, who works inside Washington at the DOJ headquarters.
But I think we can’t really be sure what Sessions has said here. I suspect that’s how Sessions wants it — and how Trump wants it too.
In the interview with Bream, Sessions seems to mean that he’s appointed the person outside of Washington to look at the allegations sent from the House Judiciary Committee. It doesn’t sound like he means the individual is conducting a separate, full-blown investigation of FISA abuses (i.e., separate from what the IG is doing).
That would actually line up with with we’ve heard before. Sessions spoke strongly but inexplicitly about FISA abuses in February, in an interview with Maria Bartiromo. On 18 February 2018, Sessions made a very brief response to Bartiromo on the question of investigating FISA abuses:
BARTIROMO: Are you, sir, investigating the fact that the FBI used the dossier to get a wiretap against Trump associates and they did not tell the FISA Court that the Democrats and Hillary Clinton paid for that dossier?
SESSIONS: Let me tell you, every FISA warrant based on facts submitted to that court have to be accurate. That will be investigated and looked at, and we are not going to participate at the Department of Justice in providing anything less than the proper disclosure to the court before they issue a FISA warrant. Other than that, I’m not going to talk about the details of it, but I tell you we’re not going to allow that to happen.
Sessions’ subsequent announcement that the IG was investigating didn’t necessarily mean that there was no other investigatory activity underway. There can be two lines of investigation happening. In fact, if there’s an IG investigation relating to FISA abuses, that tells me there’s already a premise for such an investigation, meaning someone has more than a circumstantial suspicion that there might have been FISA abuses. Someone, somewhere, has suggested there is specific evidence that needs sifting. An IG investigation is about the conduct of the FBI, and is probably not the first step, but a follow-on.
The FISA-abuse investigation by the “person outside of Washington,” meanwhile, may have started only when Sessions received the letter from the House Judiciary Committee (which was dated 6 March 2018). But there’s a good chance Sessions has had this under investigation for a while.
Add to this the information that’s breaking on Fox this evening (Thursday, 8 March): that a regional DOJ investigation of the Clinton Foundation is indeed underway, in Arkansas. Sean Hannity says in his evening broadcast that Victoria Toensing, attorney for the Uranium One whistleblower, William Campbell, has confirmed the investigation to him.
How does that relate to the FISA-abuse probe? It’s a separate instance of Jeff Sessions having an investigation done outside of Washington — and one we reported on when the first hints of it came out two months ago, in early January.
I wrote at the time about Sessions’ probable thinking:
[I]f investigators are looking into the use of funds by the Clinton Foundation, they may find other prosecutable irregularities from more recent years. Besides banking and financial violations, it’s not impossible that they may find the improper use of funds gained from racketeering during the Clinton tenure at State. They may actually find things more important than what Hillary could be prosecuted for; they may find adverse national security events that have yet to be uncovered.
And if they are looking into it all via district staffs, as in Arkansas, and not as an “HQ special” – with top officials seeking ways to suppress indictable information rather than deal with it – the outcome may be a different one from what James Comey and Loretta Lynch came up with in 2016.
Indeed, I’ve been interested for some time in the possibility that Sessions is doing more than is visible to the public. Back in July 2017, I noted the curious sequence in which Trump flamed all over Sessions, just at a point when Sessions was apparently marshaling information to make disclosures about his intelligence-leaks investigation, which had been ongoing since the spring of 2017.
I wondered then if Sessions would have bombshell revelations to make. Perhaps not; if we go by their reactions, Congress and the media were both able to take in stride what Sessions later testified to in early August. At that point, the real victory for Sessions may well have been getting through the testimony without his leak investigations being derailed by damaging leaks or other counter-information about them. Many are apparently still ongoing.
But oddly enough, the “flaming tweet” tactic from Trump seems to have been repeated on 28 February 2018: at a critical time, when a public announcement from Sessions was pending.
The main things Sessions needs for an effective investigation of any of these very hot potatoes are a quiet, unobstructed atmosphere for the probe, and top-cover from Trump.
Twitter is one of Trump’s chief methods of providing such cover. It’s a world-class distractor, reliably resetting the news cycle and rocking the media on their heels. Trump’s flaming tweet from 28 February, followed by Sessions’ statement that he has already appointed an investigator for FISA abuses, makes me wonder if an announcement of something substantial is being prepared — or if, simply, Sessions needs a running start on something the mainstream media, or other actors inside Washington, will want to sabotage. As with so many things in this strange time, we’ll have to wait and see.