Investigating the investigators
What the Durham report says about the politicization of the FBI
Former assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Swaim spent over 30 years prosecuting investigations for the federal government.
“When we applied for search warrants, we were so careful to have verification of everything that we were doing to get a judge’s approval,” Swaim told WORLD. But when he reviewed special counsel John Durham’s report on how the FBI handled the Trump-Russia investigation, he didn’t see that level of professionalism. “The slipshod way in which these people apparently looked at these matters at the highest levels of government is shocking because that’s not how investigations are done even at the street level.”
Durham this week published his long-awaited report almost completely unredacted. The 306-page filing criticizes the FBI for falling prey to “confirmation bias” in its investigation into whether then-candidate Donald Trump colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s what you need to know:
Who is Durham, and what was he investigating?
In 2019, special counsel Robert Mueller published the results of an FBI operation called Crossfire Hurricane. In his report, he found no evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia. Then–U.S. Attorney General William Barr wanted to know why the matter was investigated to begin with.
In 2020, Barr passed the reins to Durham, a U.S. attorney in Connecticut. Durham spent nearly four years conducting more than 480 interviews, including a personal discussion with Hillary Clinton. His report is based on more than 1 million documents and 190 grand jury subpoenas.
What was Crossfire Hurricane?
That was what the FBI dubbed its investigation into whether Trump or his campaign team coordinated with Russian agents to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Durham found that the full investigation was launched largely because an Australian diplomat reported that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was bragging that the Kremlin “had dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The FBI was also concerned about the Steele dossier, a political opposition report from a British spy that claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Trump and ordered a smear campaign against Clinton.
But Durham’s report said neither the claims from Papadopoulos nor the dossier warranted opening a full investigation. Typically, an agent has to demonstrate an “articulable factual basis” and meet a high standard for why the matter needs a full investigation rather than a preliminary one. Durham said the FBI relied too heavily on the politically biased dossier and rumors to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize wiretaps and intrusive surveillance. He found that agents approved the full investigation without even speaking to the Trump campaign or with Russian assets.
“Had it done so,” he wrote, “the FBI would have learned that their own experienced Russia analysts had no information about Trump being involved with Russian leadership officials, nor were others in sensitive positions at the CIA, the NSA, and the Department of State aware of such evidence concerning the subject.”
What else did Durham find out?
The report says FBI leaders consistently ignored counterevidence and subverted proper procedure. Those same leaders went by the book to launch a preliminary investigation into whether Hillary Clinton had suspicious Russia connections. Trump did not get the same treatment.
“Throughout the duration of Crossfire Hurricane, facts and circumstances that were inconsistent with the premise that Trump and/or persons associated with the Trump campaign were involved in a collusive or conspiratorial relationship with the Russian government were ignored or simply assessed away,” Durham wrote. “The FBI’s failure to critically analyze information that ran counter to the narrative of a Trump/Russia collusive relationship exhibited throughout Crossfire Hurricane is extremely troublesome.”
He found that lead investigators made several statements expressing “open disdain” for Trump and saying they would prevent him from holding office.
What is the former president saying?
Trump has long called allegations of collusion with Russia a hoax spread by Clinton’s campaign team. Even while Trump is praising Durham for “complete exoneration,” he and his supporters have criticized Durham for not calling any of Clinton’s activity criminal or pursuing other prosecutions. The special counsel concluded that there was not enough evidence to charge Clinton, either. Despite Trump’s insistence that Durham would uncover “the crime of the century,” Durham only proposed changes and accountability for the FBI. He said the FBI made many mistakes, but it was not part of a deep-state plot against Trump and “not every injustice or transgression amounts to a criminal offense.”
What did Durham recommend?
He did not recommend further criminal investigations, indictments, or even an overhaul of the FBI, as some conservatives have suggested. Instead, he ended the report with a lengthy list of suggestions for how to better shield future politically sensitive investigations from bias. For example, he suggested assigning a career official to monitor and challenge FBI surveillance applications as an extra safeguard in addition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
What is Washington saying about the report?
The FBI released a statement on Monday admitting to “missteps” in Crossfire Hurricane. The agency said it has already installed “corrective measures” to prevent such mistakes from happening again. It did not publicly counter anything in Durham’s report.
Democrats have criticized Durham’s report as an expensive waste of time with no real-life application. As of December, the Justice Department estimated Durham’s probe had cost up to $6.5 million since it began. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., called the report “a political rehashing of what the Justice Department inspector general already made public in 2019.” That report, published by Michael Horowitz, also found some misconduct on the part of the FBI but said none of it was politically motivated.
The FBI is swamped with politically sensitive investigations into 2020 election probes and classified document management by Trump, President Joe Biden, and former Vice President Mike Pence. Critics say the agency no longer has enough trust in reserve to convince the public that it has mended its ways. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has asked Durham to appear before the committee next week to detail his findings and recommendations further.